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Say what? Gender-inclusive language

Illustration of faces from different backgrounds.
Illustration: Alona Savchuk

When trying to persuade readers to buy your book or attend your event, you want to optimize the way you address them. Your choice of words is of great importance, especially when you are attempting to appeal to a diverse readership. You’ll be keen to use the best gender-neutral or inclusive terms in your promotional material. No idea how to tackle that? You can find out here.

In our everyday communication, we continually refer to each other using pronouns. Based on what someone looks like, we make assumptions about how they experience their gender and use the corresponding pronoun. We intuitively refer to a person who wears feminine clothing as ‘she’ and someone who looks masculine as ‘he’.

The reality is more complex, however. How we experience our gender should be seen as an evolving point on a spectrum of possibilities. Far from everybody, in other words, identifies as 100% male or female, and as a result not everybody feels comfortable seeing themselves referred to by the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Various linguistic constructions present alternative solutions for integrating gender-neutral language. In this article from ‘The Washington Post’ you can read how different languages deal with the ongoing transformation.

  • In 2019, English adopted the neutral ‘they’ as a way of referring to a person who identifies as non-binary, or in situations where you cannot be certain which pronouns a person prefers. Critics say that using this pronoun both to refer to singular and plural creates confusion. Nevertheless, uses of singular they date as far back as the 14th century. Even more so, ‘they’ and ‘their’ were standard in English until the nineteenth century, and only after that did grammarians recommend the use of ‘he’. Still in doubt? There are numerous apps and websites, such as ‘Practice with Pronouns’ that can help you master your gender-neutral conjugations.

  • In late 2021, the French neutral pronoun iel was added to the popular French dictionary ‘Le Petit Robert’, for use alongside the masculine il and the feminine elle.

  • Spanish and French, languages in which gender is often indicated by the word itself, have opted for different endings to non-neutral words. Alongside ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’, Spanish has adopted the gender-neutral ‘Latinx’. In French a dot or asterisk is used to indicate masculine and feminine endings, as in the word éditeur*rice.

  • The Swedish Academy, which as well as choosing the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is the highest authority on the Swedish language, decided in 2014 to introduce a neutral hen alongside the personal pronouns han (‘he’) and hon (‘she’). Hen has since been included in the Academy’s official word list. Nowadays the Swedish media use it in around half of all cases in which reference is made to a person.

One rule of thumb is to use gender-neutral pronouns whenever you cannot be certain who will hear or read your content. When talking about groups of people, you can use inclusive language. Consider for example saying ‘dear visitors’ or ‘hello everybody’ rather than ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

Gender-inclusive language immediately makes your speech, brochure or website a good deal more accessible, but be aware that it sometimes conflicts with user-friendly interfaces. The use of x or * in words can make them hard to read aloud when making websites accessible to people with a visual impairment. An alternative solution is often available. Some terms are neutral in themselves and will help you to avoid complicated constructions. Make sure in any case that your website is always easily readable and up to date.

Uncertain which pronouns a person prefers? Don’t hesitate to ask. Then try to respect that choice as far as possible when talking with them or emailing them. If you make a mistake, don’t panic. New pronouns can take some getting used to. Don’t pretend nothing has happened but apologize and correct yourself. Your efforts will undoubtedly be appreciated.

Do you or your organization want to express solidarity with people who opt for different pronouns? Then include your own pronouns in your email signature, even if you think it’s perfectly clear which you would prefer. If all your staff do this, they will be lowering the bar for others and helping to normalize the ability to choose our own pronouns. Furthermore, you will be showing that you take account of other people’s preferences in this respect and that you are open to diversity.

Want to know more?

  • Ways of dealing with diversity differ from one language to the next. If you have specific questions, you can always look up whether language-specific guides have been written within your network or context. In Flanders, for instance, the non-profit Wel Jong Niet Hetero provides advice for using gender-neutral pronouns correctly in Dutch.

  • The UN also puts out a guide for its own staff and others that indicates the best ways of using gender-inclusive language. It has been written for all the official languages of the UN: English, French, Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Spanish.

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