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Inclusive language

WSU Editorial Style Guide

WSU is committed to creating an inclusive, equitable community that welcomes and respects the diversity of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Inclusive language is a key part of building that community by conveying respect for and sensitivity to the differences among people. All written content should be free from words, phrases, or tones that are offensive and/or exclude people based on their identities.

This guide addresses inclusive language for 11 categories of identity:

Age

Disability

Gender and gender identity/expression, including pronoun usage

Incarceration

National origin

Native and Indigenous nations

Race and ethnicity

Religion

Sexual orientation

Socioeconomic status

Veteran status

Language is fluid, and the meanings and connotations of words can change rapidly. WSU will update this guide as needed to ensure the university is using the most inclusive and accurate language. If you have a comment or suggestion, please contact style.guide@wsu.edu.

Keep in mind that in many cases, it is not necessary to add anything about a person’s identity to a communication. When it is necessary or relevant, ask people what language they want you to use.


Age

  • An individual’s age should only be mentioned when relevant to the situation. For example, mentioning age may be appropriate for certain awards or recognitions, career milestones, or exceptional achievements.
  • Always use numerals for the ages of people and animals (e.g., a 19-year-old student, the dog is 2 years old).
  • For inanimate objects, follow the guidelines in the Numbers section of this style guide (e.g. the age of the oldest building on campus.)

Terms to Use

  • older adult
  • older people
  • senior
  • youth

Terms to Avoid

  • elderly
  • old
  • kids (unless specifically referring to young children)

Disability

  • Ask whether a person prefers person-first language (“John has autism”) or identity-first language (“John is autistic”).
  • Avoid using words like “normal” or “usual” when describing people who don’t have a disability.
  • Do not use words that connote pity or have negative associations (e.g., “stricken with” or “victim of”).
  • Avoid using “addict” or “addicted” to describe non-medically diagnosed situations (e.g., “Jeff is addicted to potato chips,” “This game is so addictive”).
  • Avoid using “crazy,” “insane” or “nuts” to describe situations; try a word like “unexpected” or “wild.” Never use “crazy” or “insane” to describe a person.
  • If you are marketing an event, be sure to include information about accommodations and/or who participants can contact for more information. All videos (pre-recorded and live) should have captions and transcripts.
  • Use the term “special needs” with care. There may be a more appropriate phrase in some situations.

Terms to Use

  • disabled/has a disability
  • neurotypical
  • neuro-atypical or neuro-divergent
  • accessible parking
  • Deaf with a capital “D” when talking about Deaf culture/community; deaf with a lowercase “d” when writing about hearing loss
  • person without a disability
  • born with [condition]
  • functional needs (For example, “We will address the functional needs of people with disabilities in the new facility.”)

Terms to Avoid

  • handicapped
  • able-bodied
  • normal (when describing people)
  • birth defect
  • differently abled

Gender and Gender Identity/Expression

  • Always ask for a person’s pronouns if you need them for your communication – do not assume their pronouns based on their gender expression.
  • Do not use the term “preferred” pronoun when writing about a person. Pronouns are not a preference. (“Jim’s pronouns are he and him.”)
  • Do not use “woman” or “lady” as an adjective (e.g., a woman pilot, a lady doctor).
  • “Female” is acceptable as an adjective when necessary, but should not be used as a noun replacing “woman,” since it excludes women who were not born biologically female. The same applies to use of “male” as a noun. “Female” and “male” are biological categories while “woman” and “man” mean a whole human person.
  • Use gender-neutral terms for positions (e.g., “chair” or “chairperson” instead of “chairman,” “salesperson” instead of “salesman”).
  • Do not use masculine pronouns or “he/she” when referring to generic people or groups (i.e., do not write a sentence like “Each student must show his CougarCard to enter the dining center” or “A student can buy a ticket at the door if he/she wishes”). Use plurals instead (“Students must show their CougarCards to enter the dining center”).
  • Use the name that a person gives you; do not refer to a person by a previous name. (In the context of the transgender and non-binary communities, this is known as “deadnaming” – using the name the person was given at birth or another former name instead of the name they use after transitioning.)
  • Consider avoiding the use of courtesy titles such as Mrs., Mr., Ms., etc. If you are sending a communication with a personalized salutation, you might use recipients’ first names only, or first and last names (e.g., Dear Rashida, Dear Rashida Smith).
  • Be aware of cultural differences in names. In some cultures, names are said and written as surname/given name rather than the Western practice of given name/surname. If you’re unsure about a person’s name, ask them to clarify.
  • Use “alumnus” for a male-identifying graduate, “alumna” for a female-identifying graduate, and “alumnae” for a group of female-identifying graduates. “Alumni” refers to a group of male-identifying graduates or a mixed-gender group and is not considered inclusive in all spaces but is still commonly used. For non-gendered, inclusive language, use “alum” and “alums.”
  • There are many terms around gender identity and expression not specifically mentioned here; visit the GIESORC Terms and Definitions page for more information about gender identity/expression terminology.

Terms to Use

  • everyone, folks, y’all
  • trans, transgender
    • Note that “trans” and “transgender” are adjectives, not nouns
  • first-year students
  • sophomores, juniors, seniors
  • parents, families, supporters
  • humankind, humanity
  • human-made, human-caused
  • they/them/theirs (as a gender-neutral singular pronoun)

Terms to Avoid

  • ladies and gentlemen
  • freshmen or freshman
  • upperclassmen or upperclassman
  • moms and dads
  • mankind
  • man-made
  • he/she, he or she
  • guys (for a group)

Incarceration

  • When writing about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, use person-first language (e.g., “Jane was incarcerated at X facility,” “Sam is serving 10 years at X facility for felony robbery”). Avoid language that defines people by their crimes and sentences (e.g., felon, inmate).
  • Do not mention a former incarceration unless specifically relevant to the story or communication.
  • If you’re unsure how to discuss someone’s incarceration status, ask them. You can also consult with The Marshall Project’s style guide on covering people and incarceration.

Terms to Use

  • people in jail/prison
  • incarcerated people/person
  • incarcerated at X facility
  • formerly incarcerated people/person
  • serving X years
  • held in, detained in
  • on probation/parole

Terms to Avoid

  • felon
  • inmate
  • offender
  • convict/ex-convict/ex-con

National Origin

  • Do not use umbrella terms to describe a person’s national origin; instead, be specific (e.g., “He is Cambodian” instead of “He is Asian”).
  • Remember that actions, not people, are illegal.

Terms to Use

  • undocumented
  • born in [country]
  • immigrant
  • refugee
  • developing nation, developed nation

Terms to Avoid

  • illegal immigrant, illegal alien
  • alien
  • foreign
  • third-world country, first-world country

Native and Indigenous nations

  • Use a person’s preferred Native nation affiliation(s) (if relevant to the story or communication). Do not capitalize “nation” unless it’s part of a formal name (e.g., “several Native nations” but “the Yakama Nation”).
  • Use “nation” instead of “tribe” unless a Native nation/group uses the word “tribe” to describe themselves and/or in their formal name. Per the Native Governance Center: “The term nation shows respect for sovereignty and the fact that Native nations each have their own systems of government. Globally, we have trivialized the term tribe (think ‘bride tribe,’ ‘political tribalism,’ etc.). We don’t recommend using Tribe or Tribes to talk about Native nations.”
  • When writing about a Native American nation, use the name and spelling the nation uses for itself. Some names may have multiple spellings; in these cases, use the spelling the subject(s) of your story gives you or the spelling the nation uses on its website. If a nation is commonly known by another name, you can provide that name in parentheses on first reference. For example, it is appropriate to refer to the Nez Perce Tribe as such, but they may refer to themselves in their own language as Nimiipuu.
  • Some Native American nations may have popular names, which are acceptable for use. For example, one may refer to the “Colville Tribe,” but their official name is “The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.”
  • Always capitalize the name of a Native nation.
  • Nation, reservation, and casino names are not interchangeable.
  • Avoid possessive language (e.g., Washington’s Native nations); instead, use language such as “the Native nations that share geography with Washington.”
  • “Citizen,” “member,” and “enrolled member” are generally acceptable but check with the person, as each Native nation has its own criteria for enrollment/membership.
  • The term “Indian Country” has both legal and popular definitions and is generally acceptable to use in both contexts (in popular terms, it means areas with Indigenous populations and nations).
  • Language and terminology are evolving, so consult the person/group you’re writing about or a source such as the Native Governance Center website (the source of most of the information in this section of the guide) if you’re unsure about what terms to use.

Terms to Use*

  • Indigenous
  • Native (capitalized for people and nations; lowercased for objects such as plants)
  • Native American
  • American Indian
  • Native Hawaiian
  • Alaska Native
  • nation
  • reservation (capitalized when referring to a specific reservation name)
  • Tribal colleges, Tribal Council (if the formal name of a council)

Terms to Avoid*

  • Indian (Many American Indians/Alaska Natives still refer to themselves as Indian, but as a general rule, others should avoid the term.)
  • tribe (unless part of a formal name)
  • tribe and nation together (e.g., the Yakama Nation Tribe)
  • Eskimo (unless preferred by the person)

*For Native peoples and nations in the United States; for terminology in other countries, consult a guide from that specific country.


Race and Ethnicity

  • There are numerous ways a person can identify, so if you are including language about a person’s race or ethnicity, it is particularly important to ask the person how they identify.
  • Do not use the term “non-White” to describe people who aren’t White – this assumes White is the default.
  • When referring to a group of people of many historically oppressed racial and ethnic identities, use “people of color.”

Terms to Use

  • African American
  • Asian American
  • biracial, multiracial
  • Black
  • Latine (previously Latinx was used more)
  • White
  • historically underrepresented group/population
  • historically marginalized group/population
  • historically minoritized
  • people of color
  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color)

Terms to Avoid

  • Hispanic (unless a person uses this term)
  • Caucasian
  • Oriental
  • Whites, Blacks
  • Black/Latinx/Asian community (suggesting all members of a racial or ethnic group are a monolith)
  • minority
  • Latino/a
  • diverse (in reference to one person)

Religion

  • Use the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines for spelling and capitalization of the names of religious spaces, officials, and holidays.
  • When possible, provide a person or group’s specific affiliation or denomination instead of an umbrella term (e.g., “They are Methodists” instead of “They are Christians”). Ask a person what term they prefer.
  • Do not use religious affiliation as an adjective unless relevant (e.g., “Rabbi Alan Jones, a prominent Jewish scholar, is writing a book on social justice in religious movements”).
  • There is tremendous variety among members of the same religion and/or denomination. Do not assume that all followers of a religion share the same beliefs and practices.
  • People who follow the Islamic faith are Muslims. Do not use “Islamic.”
  • People who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Latter-day Saints, not Mormons. Do not use “Mormon church” or “LDS” to describe the church itself.

Terms to Use

  • follower or member of [religion]
  • religious group
  • specific denomination names when applicable

Terms to Avoid

  • fanatic/zealot
  • cult
  • religious right or religious left

Sexual Orientation

  • Do not identify someone as a member of the LBGTQ+ community unless you have permission to do so.
  • Remember that gender identity/expression and sexual orientation are not the same. Sexual orientation is a person’s physical, romantic, emotional, aesthetic, and/or other form of attraction to others.
  • “Queer” is an umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQ+ people to refer to the entire LGBTQ+ community, but it is offensive to some people. Use only if a person or organization identifies with this term, or in direct quotes.
  • There are many terms around sexual orientation not specifically mentioned here; visit the GIESORC Terms and Definitions page for more information about sexual orientation terminology.

Terms to Use

  • LGBTQ+ (in reference to a group or community, not a specific person)
  • sexual orientation
  • spouse, partner
  • gay, lesbian

Terms to Avoid

  • sexual preference
  • husband/wife, boyfriend/girlfriend (unless the person prefers these terms)
  • homosexual, heterosexual

Socioeconomic Status

  • Deficit-based language focuses on what people lack rather than on what they possess. Instead, use specific asset-based, people-first language when discussing income inequality to avoid emphasis on lack of resources and negative connotations associated with terms such as “at-risk,” “poor,” or “low-class.” Asset-based language, such as “students striving to overcome a threatening environment and graduate,” emphasizes aspirations.
  • Use specific language to address the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing. For example: “WSU students experiencing homelessness,” “people who are homeless,” “people in emergency shelter,” or “people in transitional housing,” rather than calling people “the homeless.”
  • Don’t conflate social class and race or ethnicity by using coded language like “inner city,” “projects,” or “ghetto.” Specify race or ethnicity and measures of socioeconomic standing separately: “low-income Ukrainian families in Soap Lake.”

Terms to Use

  • below poverty level
  • low/high income
  • low/high socioeconomic status
  • section, district, area, quarter

Terms to Avoid

  • disadvantaged
  • ghetto, barrio, the projects
  • less fortunate
  • low/high class
  • poor/rich
  • welfare reliant
  • high school dropouts
  • the homeless
  • at-risk

Veteran Status

  • Use capitals when referring to US forces – for example, “US Army, the Air Force” – but not for other nations: “the French army.”
  • Anyone who has served in the military and has been released from active duty is considered a veteran; anyone still attached is a service member.
  • Members of the Reserve Officer Training Corps on campus are cadets. ROTC is an acceptable acronym.
  • “Veteran” is a term used to describe someone with military experience. “Combat veteran” refers to someone who served in combat.
  • Some student veterans want to blend in with civilian life. They will share their military experiences with you if they want to, but please respect their privacy.

Terms to Use

  • armed forces
  • military, or specify the branch
  • service member

Terms to Avoid

  • accident (for war-related violence)
  • Army (as generic for military)
  • serviceman

This guide borrows from style guides at Colorado State University and Boise State University.

Other online inclusive glossaries include:

Diversity and Social Justice: A Glossary of Working Definitions by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell

Diversity Style Guide

Conscious Style Guide

APA Guide to Bias-free Language

The government of Canada’s Guide on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Terminology

Native Governance Center

The Sierra Club’s Glossary of Terms for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (PDF).