How to use gender-inclusive language

I originally wrote this for an internal blog at work, and my colleagues and friends requested I repost it publicly to be shared more widely. I’ve adapted the original post with some minor updates and stripped out the stuff that was specific to the workplace.

Big thanks to my colleagues Tallulah and Basil for their help in assembling and editing this post!

The words we use are so important. Using gender-inclusive language demonstrates our commitment to cultivating an inclusive and comfortable space for everyone.

There are lots of commonly-used phrases in English that are gender-exclusive. Because many English-speakers are used to hearing and using these phrases, it may not occur to people that these phrases are unintentionally exclusive. But knowledge is power, and we can do better!

For example, references to “men and women” exclude those of us who are nonbinary. Here are some helpful substitutions that are more inclusive:

Instead of…Say…
“Ladies and gentlemen”“Everyone,” “everybody,” “folks,” “esteemed colleagues/guests,” “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals”
“Men and women,” “boys and girls”“People,” “folks,” “everyone”
“You guys”“Friends,” “colleagues,” “y’all,” “yinz,” “everyone,” “folks”
Examples of gender-neutral substitutions

One frequently-asked question: “What do you use instead of ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’ when speaking to someone whose gender you don’t know?” This is especially tricky for people who work in the service sector, who seek to be extra-polite to customers. I’m hoping we can drop the expectation of adding honorifics to sentences entirely, but some gender-neutral alternatives that work in certain circumstances include “friend,” “comrade,” “captain,” “boss,” “kind patron,” “your eminence,” “honored guest/customer,” or you can rework a sentence to add “thank you” or “pardon me” to make it more polite.

One place where gender-based language gets a little more complicated is when talking about biological processes that have typically been ascribed to a specific gender, but actually happen to people outside of that gender, too. For example, some transgender men, intersex people, and nonbinary people menstruate and get pregnant. Some transgender women can get prostate cancer. Cisgender men can get breast cancer. Labeling these as “women’s health” or “men’s health” issues is alienating and uncomfortable for people who experience these things but don’t align with that gender label.

It’s not always intuitive how to discuss these issues without gender labels, but it can be done! Here are some ideas for substitutions. Please add more to the comments, if you think of them!

Instead of…Say…
“Women” or “Female” (when discussing ability to give birth, specifically)“people who can give birth”
“Pregnant women”“pregnant people”
“Women”/”Female” or “Men”/”Male” (when discussing a biological issue)“people who can get XYZ disorder,” “people with XYZ body part”
Examples of gender-neutral substitutions related to biology

Other gender-neutral terms

Here are some gender-neutral options for gendered words we hear a lot. They’re especially handy if you’re not sure of the gender of the person you’re addressing:

Mx.: An honorific, alternative to Mr./Mrs./Ms.
Sibling: instead of brother/sister
Spouse: instead of husband/wife
Partner, datefriend, sweetheart, significant other: instead of boyfriend/girlfriend
Parent: instead of mother/father
Nibling: instead of niece/nephew
Pibling, Entle, Nuncle: instead of aunt/uncle

Please don’t assume people’s pronouns

Remember, even if someone’s name is masculine or feminine-sounding, that doesn’t necessarily mean you know their gender or pronouns. If in doubt of how to address someone, you can share your pronouns and then ask for theirs. For example, “By the way, I use she/her pronouns. What are your pronouns?” 

An easy way to share your pronouns online is to include them in your email signature and online profiles. You can also add your pronouns to your Zoom name so that folks can see your pronouns in meetings. By sharing your pronouns, you create a safer space for other folks to share theirs, and you normalize them in conversation.

How to use “they” and neopronouns

They/them has been acceptable in the English language as a gender-neutral pronoun for individuals since the 1300s. Many use it without thinking, like when we don’t know the gender of someone we’re talking about: “When will they arrive?” for example.

If someone uses they/them pronouns, you conjugate it the same as using they/them as plural pronouns:

“What kinds of cheese do they like?”
They enjoy Stilton and cheddar especially.”
“Ooo, I wonder if they have any good fondue recipes.”

Some people don’t use he, she, or they as pronouns – there are many more possibilities! These are called neopronouns, and they include sets like per/pers, ze/zir, ey/em, xe/xem, and others. Learn more about various sets of pronouns here, and how to use them!

It’s always correct to use someone’s name in place of their pronouns, if you’re unsure or still getting used to using their pronouns.

“What kinds of cheese does Chris like?”
“Chris enjoys Stilton and Cheddar especially.”
“Ooo, I wonder if Chris has any good fondue recipes.”

Avoid using the phrases: “identifies as” or “preferred pronouns”

When referring to nonbinary or transgender people, avoid using the terms “identifies as” or “preferred pronouns.” These phrases incorrectly imply that someone’s gender identity or pronouns are a preference and are optional for the speaker to use. These phrases can also incorrectly imply that someone prefers to identify as X but is actually Y. This language is invalidating to nonbinary and transgender people.

Instead of: “What are your preferred pronouns?”
Say: “What are your pronouns?”

What if you or someone else makes a mistake?

Mistakes happen! If you slip up and use the wrong name or pronouns for someone, here’s what to do:

  1. Quickly apologize
  2. Correct yourself
  3. Continue the conversation

Example: “Whoops. I’m sorry, I meant ____. As I was saying…”

Over-apologizing or making a big deal of it often makes the person you misgendered uncomfortable, or makes them feel like they have to support you and that your embarrassment is more important than their pain. (We shouldn’t have to say “that’s okay” when someone misgenders us, because it’s not okay, but sometimes we feel obligated to do so in such an awkward situation.) Just make a conscious effort to do better next time, and move on.

If someone else misgenders a friend or uses incorrect pronouns, it can be tricky to know how to respond. First, ask yourself if that friend would appreciate you correcting people on their behalf in that circumstance. If yes, either make the correction briefly and quickly (i.e. if the offender said “he,” immediately say “she”) OR reach out to the offender privately and let them know they made a mistake. Use your best judgment.

More on how to handle pronoun errors here.

Additional resources:

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