What is inclusive language?
You might have been hearing more and more about it in the last few years: inclusive language. But what do people mean by it exactly? Is it a new thing? And why should you think about it when writing web copy? Find the answer to all of these questions in this post. We’ll do some myth-busting too!
First things first: What is inclusive language? Inclusive language is language that avoids terms that might exclude marginalized groups of people. Typically these are terms that perpetuate prejudice, stigma, or erasure. Inclusive language favors alternatives over these terms that are less likely to be experienced as harmful or exclusionary. At the same time, these alternatives aim to keep the intended meaning.
Advocates of inclusive language generally strive for a more inclusive society. Language is an important aspect of society and it’s known to have the power to normalize ideas or beliefs. Therefore avoiding terms that imply sexist, racist, ableist, or otherwise biased ideas, can make more people feel genuinely part of society.
Some examples of inclusive alternatives
As this may sound complicated, let’s show some examples to demonstrate how this works.
Firemen vs firefighters
Take a look at this example:
” What happened? I saw all these firemen passing by!”
The word firemen generates a male or masculine image of the word in your mind. However, firefighters don’t have to be men. So, unless you’re referring to a group of male firefighters specifically, a better and more accurate alternative would be firefighters. A better sentence here would be:
” What happened? I saw all these firefighters passing by!”
By using this word in the right context you’re making sure all firefighters, whatever their gender, feel addressed, seen, or heard.
Inclusive language is context and language-specific
Inclusive language is a nuanced subject. What is or isn’t inclusive can depend on the context of the word. Some words are derogatory on all occasions; other words’ appropriateness can depend on the way they are used in a sentence.
For instance, in English using the word seniors when referring to older people is considered non-inclusive, while seniors when referring to children in high school is considered perfectly fine. At the same time, in Dutch, the word senioren (the literal translation of seniors) is actually considered more appropriate than oudere mensen (literal translation of older people). So what’s inclusive or not can really differ per context and per language.
Why write inclusive web copy?
So why would you write more inclusive content for the web? Well, when you’re creating content for your website you probably want as many people as possible to see, read and enjoy it. If you want people to feel seen and heard in your content it’s not only ethical but also smart to avoid certain words and phrases. By writing more inclusively you can give more people a better user experience as you’re making your content more accessible and relatable. That in itself is already a great reason to write more inclusively.
But it has more advantages. Creating inclusive content allows you to broaden your audience: it’s more likely people will engage with, link to, or share your content if they feel like you’ve written it for them. Which, in turn, is great for SEO, not to mention conversion. In fact, Google’s John Mueller stated on Twitter that they value and promote writing more inclusively as well. And as he says: “You might not get it right all the time but taking steps to get better matters too.”
Read more about the relationship between inclusive content and SEO.
Myths about inclusive language
Let’s conclude this post by debunking some myths that exist around the inclusive language phenomenon.
(Non-)inclusive language doesn’t have any real-life effects
Language has the power to influence how we think about something. It can normalize certain ideas or beliefs. If an idea is encoded through language and we hear it repeated over and over again, it gets normalized. Particularly if it’s part of standard or mainstream language! Non-inclusive language can also function as microaggressions. If you’d like to learn how this works, read this article about the power of everyday language.
So inclusive language affects real life AND vice versa. The more places that are safe for marginalized people appear in real life, the more these values reflect in how we communicate with each other.
Inclusive language is a new invention
The topic of inclusive language has been quite popular lately, this may make it seem like it’s a new invention. However, language has always been connected to social and cultural norms. It reflects them, and can also play a role in spreading them. When norms change, so does language. And when people try to challenge harmful ideas, they often also challenge the use of language that reflects and normalizes them.
For example, feminist activists of the 1960s and 70s were challenging the use of words like ‘he’ and ‘man’ to refer to humans in general. This was part of their fight to increase the visibility and status of women. If you’re interested in knowing more about their fight, you can read about it in the Words and Women book, first published in 1976. Another interesting read about the topic of inclusive language is this research paper that discusses “neutral pronouns that aren’t“, first published in 1978. The paper drew conclusions that terms to describe males like “he” or “man” can fail to be gender-neutral. Males may also have an advantage in contexts where they are referred to by a putative neutral.
It is arbitrarily decided what language is inclusive
Society is always changing and evolving, and so is our understanding of it. This means that with time, we can realize that language that at one point was seen as inclusive, is not so inclusive after all.
An example of advice that has evolved is the use of handicapped vs special needs vs disabled. It used to be common to use the term special needs to replace the non-inclusive term handicapped. But conversations around disability have evolved into including disabled people. Therefore, inclusive language advocates now recommend using the word disabled instead.
These changes can happen fast, which may seem like there are constantly new ‘rules’ about what language is inclusive and what isn’t. And it may even feel like people can’t make up their minds about what language they want you to use, and make up new rules just to make your life harder.
However, this is not true – when there is any significant pushback against certain words or phrases, it is usually for a good reason. The reason may not be obvious at first, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And of course, it doesn’t mean that people always get it right – as mentioned earlier, our idea of what is and isn’t inclusive is always evolving. But the point is that more often than not people have specific reasons for advocating for or against certain language, even if sometimes their reasoning ends up being misguided.
The Yoast help articles on inclusive language can serve as useful explanations of why certain words and phrases are targeted by our inclusive language check.
You should feel bad for using non-inclusive language
It’s not a nice feeling to realize that the language you’ve been using might be harmful to other people. But we have all done it, and even the most dedicated people still make mistakes and are learning. As mentioned, our understanding of what is and isn’t inclusive can evolve quite fast, so naturally, we will be making mistakes along the way. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you have (unintentionally) used language that is not inclusive. In the first section of this article on Medium the writer does a good job of explaining this.
Inclusive language is language that makes everyone happy
Making everyone happy is impossible. Inclusive language is about avoiding language that harms certain groups of people, for example through stereotyping or erasing them. Some people may even be unhappy when they see inclusive language being used. For example, people who hold transphobic views may feel unhappy when they see trans-inclusive language being used. However, inclusive language doesn’t harm anyone, even if it can make some people unhappy by challenging their (harmful) beliefs. In fact, challenging harmful beliefs is part of what makes inclusive language inclusive.
Inclusive language is language that doesn’t offend anyone
Non-inclusive language is often offensive to people, however not all language that offends people is non-inclusive. Being offended is a subjective feeling – people can get offended by different things. For example, a person who expresses racist views may be offended if someone calls them racist. This doesn’t mean that calling racist behavior racist is not inclusive. There is a difference between language that causes personal offense and language that causes harm. Inclusive language is about avoiding the latter.
How to write more inclusively
So now you know what it is (and isn’t) and why you should use it. But how to make sure your content is inclusive? There are many guides on the internet on how to write more inclusive. So you might feel overwhelmed and not 100% up to date on best practices regarding inclusive language. We understand! It can be difficult because you might not be aware of potentially harmful words. Even when you are, you’d also need to know the alternatives! Also, as we explained, guidelines might change and that’s hard to keep up with.
Fortunately, Yoast can help you with an easy solution if you create content on WordPress or Shopify. It’s our Inclusive language analysis in Yoast SEO. It will check your copy for non-inclusive terms. These checks are developed by our in-house linguists, in cooperation with Maxwell Hope from the University of Delaware. The analysis will highlight the words that could be non-inclusive and will also provide alternatives. Check out how it works in this screenshot:
It checks for problematic terms in the following categories: Age, appearance, race, culture, ethnicity, disability, neurodiversity, gender and socio-economic status. Here you’ll find an overview of these categories. It’s opt-in, so you can switch it on if you care about this topic and want to make great content for everyone!
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