The topic of gender inclusivity can be intimidating for authors as being respectful to everyone is important but we might not know exactly what to say (or avoid saying) to make that happen. Many writers worry that a wrong pronoun or phrase might get them in trouble or unintentionally offend an entire group of people. In reality, using gender-inclusive language can be done if you know just a few basics. So fear not as our comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know to be gender-inclusive.
Gender-inclusive language is speaking and writing in a way that respects all genders and doesn’t exclude or discriminate against a particular sex or gender identity.
So, why would you include it in your writing? It’s a common misconception that gender-inclusive language is only useful for people who write about the topics of gender, sexuality, or LGBTQIA+. However, all authors who wish to create an inclusive and comfortable experience for their readers should make an effort to employ gender-inclusive language. In nonfiction, this can apply to the examples, stories, dialogues, and figures of speech used to strengthen the points for readers. Making sure this communication is considerate ensures that readers feel valued and have a clear reading journey.
In this section, we’ll give you some easy tips to follow in your writing.
In English, we’re used to the personal pronouns “he/him” for males and “she/her” for females. However, people can have identities other than man or woman. For example, someone could be agender, which is identifying as neither a man or woman. They could also be transgender, which is when the sex they were assigned at birth is not the same as their gender identity. Overall, some people prefer to use the gender-neutral “they/them” pronoun, which has neither masculine nor feminine connotations. This applies to honorifics too, where instead of “Mr” or “Miss/Mrs/Ms”, some prefer the gender-neutral “Mx”.
You’d be surprised by how rarely gender is actually necessary to use in your writing! Unless your advice is exclusively meant for a specific group, there’s no need to specify gender. You can try including gender-neutral pronouns in examples or dialogues in your book and look out for cases where you’re unnecessarily referring to gender; for example, swap “if he or she replies first” with “if they reply first”. Using gender-neutral language is also useful for when we don’t know or want to disclose someone’s gender.
Is the singular “they/them” grammatically incorrect?
“They/them” has been used to refer to a singular person ever since the 1300s, especially about an unspecified, unknown person. Universally known English writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen used the singular “they”. So, no, gender-inclusive pronouns will not compromise your text’s grammar.
English vocabulary can also be full of gender-specific terms that refer to people’s professions or descriptors for things, and we sometimes use these words without thinking twice, like “policeman”, “fireman”, and “delivery man”. Books also often assign the masculine pronoun “he” for professions like “doctor”, “driver”, “builder”, or “CEO” and the feminine pronoun “she” for professions like “nurse”, “babysitter”, “model”, and “secretary”. And when referring to an undefined person or people in general, some writers default to “he” or “men”, or “manmade”, “mankind”, and “manpower”.
These biases perpetuate harmful stereotypes, suggesting that men are more suitable for demanding and laborious jobs, while women are better suited to looking pretty, caring for people, and in supporting roles. Default masculine language also reinforces the patriarchal idea that men are the superior “standard” and everyone else makes up “the other”.
So, to make our writing inclusive and respectful, it’s wise to employ gender-neutral language if gender isn’t needed and opt for gender-neutral word choices like “police officer”, “firefighter”, and “delivery person”. We should also stop “othering” non-male people in our texts by swapping male-specific language for inclusive alternatives like “artificial”, “humankind”, and “workforce”.
Finally, writing can reinforce toxic and outdated gender stereotypes with content that goes beyond just grammar and word choice. Entire phrases and sentences can be discriminating statements against a group of individuals, especially ones in marginalised communities. Phrases like “a man’s job”, “a man-sized dinner”, and “fathers help out with the children” support old-fashioned stereotypes about men, while phrases like “womanly household duties”, “fights like a girl”, and “act more ladylike” reinforce outdated stereotypes about women.
To know whether the language you are using is discriminatory or stereotypical, try reversing the sex in your sentence. And take care to not imply stereotypical beliefs. For example, as an author writing examples of office conversations, do the women almost always talk about their children and shopping, while the men discuss football and cars? Another example is routinely putting males in roles of leadership and authority and putting women in secondary roles or depicting them as the most emotional people in the room.
Given the key role language that has in our culture and society, gender-inclusive and gender-neutral writing are powerful ways to promote equality and stand against gender bias. Some writers believe this is unnecessary or there’s no harm in using masculine pronouns for all people. However, this way of communication can not only be confusing and misleading for readers, but it also excludes many of them from being represented and understood. Ultimately, a gender-inclusive book reveals an unbiased, respectful and educated writer behind it.
For helpful infographics on gender-neutral language in book writing and for more top writing tips, follow our socials right here!
Sign up to our newsletter below to get writing and publishing tips and tricks.