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Guidelines for Inclusive Language

for writers, editors, and speakers.

Author: Office for Communication
Issue: 1987
Copyright: © 1987 Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.


This is the first edition of a brochure that will, from time to time, be modified to meet changing circumstances. It is based on a similar document produced by the Lutheran Church in America Office for Communications and on previous work by a variety of people in Lutheran and ecumenical circles.

We are grateful to Charles Austin, Director of the Department of News and Information, and the staff of the LCA Office for Communications, for the right to adapt their document to our needs and circumstances.

We also wish to thank the executive staff of the ELCIC for their input, especially the work of Ruth Blaser, executive director of the Division for Church and Society; William Stauffer, executive director of the Division for College and University Services, and the Division for Theological Education and Leadership; and Diane Doth Rehbein, executive director of Evangelical Lutheran Women.

Ferdy E. Baglo, editor, Canada Lutheran,
for the Office for Communication,
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.


Language has power. It transmits not only facts and ideas, but emotions and values. Skillful writers and speakers have always had the power to affect people's attitudes, influence their actions, and shape their inner views of the world and its peoples.

If writers and speakers use language which places people in narrow and erroneously.defined categories, they limit opportunities for those individuals to grow as persons and to live freely and creatively. Such language is also unfair to the reader or listener, since it limits their perception of their fellow human beings.

In obedience to God, who sent Jesus Christ to bring salvation to all people, Christian writers and speakers have a responsibility to use language in a humane way, avoid bias and take care not to abuse the humanity of others for whom Christ died.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada affirms some basic principles behind these guidelines for avoiding bias:

  1. All persons share equally in God's plan for humanity.

  2. Support for personal development of each individual's potential is part of the Lutheran concept of Christian vocation, wherein each person exercises his or her own priesthood within the people of God.

  3. The church is the body of Christ. As such it must fully include all persons who come to Christ, regardless of what restrictions society may impose through prejudice, tradition or law.

Christians are nurtured in societies which have excluded groups of persons or limited their participation. Christians do not automatically choose the most humane ways of writing or speaking. This unthinking use of language is a special risk when writing or speaking of persons belonging to groups "other than our own." The conscientious believer will choose language supporting principles of inclusiveness and enhancing the dignity of all persons.

At the same time, it must be recognized that the use of language, like the use of politics, lies within the realm of the "kingdom of this world," with all its imperfections. As citizens of that realm, Christians interact with other people of good will to create more humane ways of relating to one another.

Writers, editors and speakers should strive continually to become more sensitive to the value systems revealed in the words they use and to choose words that communicate fairly and accurately.

The purpose of this booklet is to point to special areas of concern about bias in language and to suggest ways that writers, editors and speakers can be more accurate, humane and inclusive.

Sexual Bias

Language about men and women often reveals bias about what it means to be male or female. Careless use of language assigns roles to men and women which are not only objectionable, but inaccurate.

Both men and women have been victimized by biased use of language. But the image of women has suffered more because the generic use of "he" and "men" and "mankind" has favoured the masculine over the feminine. Today, more inclusive language not only helps overcome such masculine bias, but is a more accurate reflection of reality.

  1. Language should make it clear that both men and women are involved in the activities and accomplishments of the human race.

    Exclusive: Men by the thousands headed west.
    Inclusive: Men and women headed west; or, people by the thousands headed west.

    Exclusive: The average person is proud of his heritage.
    Inclusive: Most people are proud of their heritage.

  2. Use women's names. Do not refer to someone's wife, mother or daughter and leave it there, suggesting that the woman has no identity except as one related to another. Today some married women continue to use the name they bore before marriage. Hence: "The Rev. Cheryl Newman and her husband, Harold Star have been chosen to represent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada at …"

    Exclusive: Smith and his wife.
    Inclusive: Robert and Alice Smith.

    Exclusive: Man and wife.
    Inclusive: Man and woman, husband and wife.

    Exclusive: Housewife.
    Inclusive Homemaker.

  3. Use no titles when they refer only to the marital status of one partner. Be consistent in indicating family relationships.

    Inconsistent: Jim Clark and Mrs. Brown.
    Consistent: Sara Brown and Jim Clark.

    Inconsistent: Clark and Sara Brown.
    Consistent: Brown and Clark or Sara Brown and Jim Clark.

    Inconsistent: The Rev. Joan Johnson and her husband.
    Consistent: The Rev. Joan Johnson and Mr. Paul Johnson.

  4. Do not imply that certain jobs are limited to either men or women. There remain very few of these.

    Exclusive: Clergymen.
    Inclusive: Clergy, pastors, ministers.

    Exclusive: Laymen.
    Inclusive: Laity, lay people, layperson.

    Exclusive: Chairman.
    Inclusive: Chair, chairperson, presiding officer. (If the person involved is indeed a man, "chairman" may be appropriate; and if a woman holds the post "chairwoman" may be acceptable.)

  5. Avoid unnecessary personal pronouns when talking about occupations. The usage should not make unwarranted assumptions. Words and illustrations should show both men and women functioning as leaders in church and society.

    Exclusive: A preacher needs his morning coffee.
    Inclusive: A preacher needs coffee in the morning.

    Exclusive: Every synodical leader must pledge his utmost …
    Inclusive: Each synodical leader must pledge …

    Exclusive: When a delegate votes "yes," he votes for …
    Inclusive: A "yes" vote means …

    Exclusive: Salesman.
    Inclusive: Salesperson.

    Exclusive: Woman professor or man teacher.
    Inclusive: Professor or teacher. ("Woman" is a noun. It is awkward to say "woman pastor." "Female" is the adjective.)

    Many find the term "lady" condescending when used generically.

    Avoid feminizing occupations by adding the suffix "-ess." (Though common usage seems to cling to "actress" and "waitress" without giving offense.)

  6. Find substitutes for problem words. An alternative choice of words often not only avoids giving offense, but is more accurate.

    Exclusive: Forefathers.
    Inclusive: Ancestors, forebears.

    Exclusive: Founding fathers.
    Inclusive: Founders.

    Exclusive: Brotherhood, fellowship, fraternity.
    Inclusive: Companionship, friendship.

    Exclusive: Manpower.
    Inclusive: Human power, work force, staff time, workers.

    Exclusive: Mankind.
    Inclusive: Humankind, humanity, people.

    Exclusive: Man-hours.
    Inclusive: Work hours.

    Exclusive: Man-made.
    Inclusive: Manufactured, produced.

    Exclusive: The common man.
    Inclusive: The average person, ordinary citizen.

    Exclusive: Churchman.
    Inclusive: Church member.

  7. Encourage inclusive language in liturgical and devotional material. Restructure prayers and liturgical formulations as similes rather than as metaphors.

    (E.g. "God our Father"—"0 God, who watches over us as a father…"—"0 God, who cares for us as a mother for her young."

    Use current language patterns and words which can translate the meaning of biblical words and images without sex bias.

    Avoid language about God and God's people which is only and unnecessarily masculine.

    (E.g. "King" may be translated as "Ruler," "Lord" as "Sovereign," "Kingdom" as "Rule, or Realm" of God; "mankind" as "humankind"; "all men" as "all people.")

  8. "Girl" refers to a female person of pre-teen years. Teenagers generally prefer "youth" as a term to refer to both boys and girls in their teen years. Beyond these years, everyone is either a man or a woman; and references to adult women as "girls" or adult men as "boys" is unacceptable.

  9. Avoid all joking references to male or female roles or preferences. For example, citing women as backseat drivers, mothers-in-law as interfering and nasty, husbands as sports nuts or henpecked is inappropriate. Not all women are spendthrifts; and not all men are insensitive.

  10. Don't limit the roles men or women can play. Sexist stereotypes abound—the princess rescued by the prince, the wicked stepmother, the little girl in a spotless dress watching the boys do "fun" things, the woman who flirts to get ahead. A good test is to ask if the story could still be told if the roles were reversed.

  11. Don't assign emotional or moral roles exclusively to one sex. Both men and women may need care and protection; both can be spiritually and morally strong; both can be competent and independent. Seek ways of showing strong, independent women; and avoid showing men as unemotional.

  12. Be sensitive about sexual labels. Current usage is "gay" for male homosexuals, "lesbian" for female homosexuals, and "homosexuals" for both. Even if the writer or speaker does not condone homosexuality, language used should not de-humanize or vilify persons.

Racial Bias

All persons share a common humanity. Racial divisions are often cited by one group of people to justify enslavement, separation or oppressive treatment of other human beings. It is pointless to avoid references to the differences among persons in colours of skin, eyes, or hair, but these references should be made in the proper context and should not carry emotional or moral freight.

In many cases, it is as appropriate to refer to light or tan or dark or black skin as to note blue, brown or green eyes, or blonde, brunette or red hair. But it is wrong to attach personal or moral quality to physical traits.

The following points should be stressed:

  1. Racial stereotyping must be avoided. Sensitive people will avoid the now clearly outmoded racial "types" which were once common. They are derogatory and false. But more subtle "types" are often present in modern usage; e.g. the suggestion that all Indians are on welfare, that crime occurs only in certain communities, that suburbs are populated only by white people.

    Pejorative or joking references of a racial nature should be removed from all writing or speaking. Terms such as "Jap," "Chinaman," or "Asiatic" are offensive. Racial jokes or stories based upon presumed traits of nationalities are in poor taste.

  2. Avoid tokenism, particularly in pictures or illustrations. Characters should be drawn as individuals. They can be shown with the physical characteristics of their race; not simply as Caucasians with coloured skin.

  3. Depict a variety of lifestyles. Avoid putting people in settings which contrast with white, North American culture. Many Indian and Metis people live in cities; and Canadian suburbs are not solely populated with Anglo-Saxons. Try to offer genuine insights into the lifestyles and cultural settings of all persons. In writing, speaking and illustrating, care should be taken to avoid showing persons from other parts of the world as culturally underdeveloped.

  4. Avoid picturing non-white persons functioning in essentially subservient roles.

  5. Be careful with the point of view presented. Do not imply that minority persons are considered "the problem" in certain circumstances. Do not suggest that solutions to social problems depend upon the benevolence of those who are white or rich. Also avoid "civilized" and "uncivilized" or "primitive" in international references, since the terms pass judgement on cultures which may be thousands of years older than the writer's own.

  6. Be conscious of norms which can limit a person's aspirations and self-concepts. Think what it would do to a black child to be bombarded with images of white as beautiful or clean or pure or virtuous and black as dirty and menacing. It is equally unproductive to create guilt in the mind of the socially-concerned white middle-class youth by insisting that he or she is "one of the oppressers" or "the focus of evil."

  7. Be conscious of sources used in research, writing or speaking. Many publications considered authoritative in such fields as history or social studies have been written from a white, European or American male perspective and have not taken into consideration the interests of contributions that racial groups or women have made to history. Canada is a multi-cultural society and this should be reflected.

  8. Mention of the race or nationality of an individual should be made only when it is necessary or important to the sense of the material. When race or nationality must be cited, it should be done in a non-pejorative way. No one should be presented as "typical" of his or her ethnic group.

Ethnic Bias

In North America there is a great deal of conscious and unconscious prejudice against what are perceived to be the characteristics of other nationalities. The principle that all persons are created equal is accepted, but society cannot fully disguise its nationalistic bias. Language frequently fosters this bias.

Here are some suggestions on how to avoid national bias in writing or speaking:

  1. Apply the same test to nationality that one would apply to race. Avoid assuming things about any nationality. It is neither true nor memorable to say that "all Irish love a fight," or that the Mediterranean region produces only hot-blooded men and women. Avoid suggesting that all Arabs are rich; that all Jews are clannish; that Poles or Finns are dull-witted, that Japanese are sneaky. Every nationality should be shown with fully human attributes.

  2. Such expressions as "backward nations," or even "emerging nations" suggest a hierarchy of values which is inappropriate. The use of "third world" is widespread and accepted, but whenever possible be specific in referring to such places, using the actual name of the nation involved or a more precise reference to the region, e.g. East African nations, Central America, Brazil, Southeast Asia. When possible, say "Liberian" or "Tanzanian" rather than "African," since Africa includes the territory from South Africa's Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean.

  3. When seeking illustrations, remember that there are heroes and heroines from all national backgrounds. To limit references only to Northern Europeans or white Canadians is inaccurate and offensive.

  4. Bias also exists in geographical stereotypes, such as the Alberta redneck, country bumpkin, Ottawa politician. Such code words and their implications should be avoided.

  5. Canada has many ethnic groups which reflect the cultural diversity inherent from the time of confederation. The Francophone population is the most notable of these but visible minority populations such as Chinese, Japanese and Blacks are of old and recent immigrations. Others from Central and South America, the Asian subcontinent, Africa and Europe have also come in several waves of immigration. Avoid the assumption that all these people are non-English speaking or recent arrivals. Avoid racial stereotypes and ethnic slurs.

  6. While persons from other nations may speak imperfect or accented English, avoid using such a device to subtly imply that they are uneducated or inferior.

  7. Be alert to changes in place names, political boundaries, and regions where the political destiny is as yet unclear. The West Bank of the Jordan River is presently under Israel's control.

  8. "Aboriginal People" is an acceptable term for referring to peoples resident on this continent when the Europeans arrived. "Treaty Indian" refers to people with aboriginal treaty status while "Metis" refers to aboriginal people of mixed origin who do not have treaty status. Wherever possible writers and speakers should refer to specific groups or tribes e.g. Haida, Cree, Ojibway. The term "squaw" is highly insulting to Indian women. They have babies, not "papooses." Do not cast Aboriginal people in the mold of the Indian as they appear in old western movies.

  9. Avoid terms like "our mission fields" or other language which implies that North Americans or Europeans "own and operate" churches in other lands. The terms "mission" and "missionaries" are acceptable and not necessarily colonialist, but become so when linked with phrases such as "mother church" and "native church." The church is a global family, interdependent with one another, not solely reliant on the churches in the Northern hemisphere.

Religious Bias

Humane use of language means respect for persons of varying religious beliefs. Respect does not imply endorsement of other religious views or suggest that all criticism is unacceptable. But it does mean that speakers, writers and illustrators will avoid religious bias prompted by prejudice, ignorance, chauvinism or hatred.

Writings about other faiths and portrayals of those faiths may point out inhumane elements of adherents of other faiths e.g. human sacrifice, physical mutilation, intolerance; provided the portrayals are based on accurate knowledge. The failings of Christians may not be glossed over, considering the excesses of the Crusades or the Inquisition, forced conversions, or Christian colonialism. In the 20th century, Christians should be especially aware of the horrors of the holocaust of World War II, a tragedy for all of humanity; but especially for the Jews.

Here are some special considerations:

  1. Be as precise as possible in referring to teachings, practices, and the history of other faiths. References to "pagan" or "heathen" religions are pejorative. Sometimes the term "traditional" religions fits; other times it is more appropriate to be specific and refer to Animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Avoid characterizing persons based solely on their religious beliefs or on the religious faith dominant in their native land. Beware of sterotyping all Muslims as Shi'ites or all Shi'ites as Islamic fundamentalists. Not all Hindus are vegetarians, not all Baptists are biblical literalists, not all Anglicans are wealthy.

  2. Be careful in using references to New Testament Jews. There is a long history of bias in Christianity which blames Jews for the death of Jesus and for the persecution of the early church. Recounting the Passion story is especially troublesome and can give children or uncritical hearers an incorrect view of the reason Jesus died. Blaming the Jews alone for Jesus' death ignores the facts that the authorities condemning Jesus were Romans, the earliest Christians were all Jews, and that the sins of all humanity led to the Crucifixion.

  3. Where possible and appropriate, indicate the range of beliefs and practices within religious groupings, as well as factional differences. For example, there are Orthodox, Conservative and reform Jews, liberal and moderate Baptists, various strains of Hinduism and Buddhism.

  4. Christianity attempted to erase traditional aboriginal religion; with the result that there is a mixture of traditional and Christian beliefs among Indian and Metis today. Native American religions, which have sacred objects and places and doctrines, deserve the same respect as other world religions. The religious beliefs of aboriginal people should not be seen only as an adjunct to making war or as quaint customs.

  5. Try to put a faith in its historical or cultural context.

  6. Avoid suggesting that God works only through the established Christian church or through "orthodox" believers. The result of such a suggestion is that anyone else is considered "against" God.

  7. In references to the Muslim faith, avoid outmoded terminology and spellings. Currently "Muslim" is preferred to "Moslem," "Islam" to "Mohammedanism," "Muhammad" rather than "Mohammed" and "Qu'ran" rather than "Koran," though the latter is still in wide use. Muslims consider Allah as the same God worshipped by Christians and Jews, and they revere the Old Testament as a record of God's acts. Allah is the Arabic word for God, and is also used by Arab Christians as well as by Muslims.

  8. Sectarian language should also be purged from writing and speaking. Here the writer or speaker must contend with rapidly.changing usage, as words such as "evangelical," "born-again," "sect," "fundamentalism," "cult" take on various meanings. Context and current usage will make it clear whether a word is pejorative, condemnatory or descriptive.

  9. In Christian usage, avoid implying a "hierarchy" of grace when referring to clergy and laity. The term, "ministry," is not limited to that work done by an ordained pastor or professional church worker. All Christians have ministries, though some have been called to a specific ministry of word and Sacrament. An ordained minister is not automatically a more "committed" Christian than the lay person who ministers in another vocation.

Material & Physical Bias

Religious and humanitarian organizations, to stir up charitable impulses among their members or supporters, sometimes use language and illustrations that foster a subtle arrogance, paternalism or materialism. It is often suggested that the recipients of Christian care are inferior people dependent upon the giver to support themselves or their churches.

1. Those who suffer.

Disaster victims, members of minority groups, the poor in general and those in less developed countries are often viewed as less self.reliant, industrious, resourceful and independent than those who donate to their need. The giver is led to the self.righteous belief that "those people" won't make it unless "bailed out" by others, a fact which may be economically accurate, but is theologically flawed. Christian charity does not seek to create grateful debtors, but to share unconditionally with others the love that God has shared unconditionally with the world.

In all writing, speaking and illustrating, care should be taken to avoid the impression that the recipient somehow lacks full humanity without the largesse of the donor; or that the donor becomes more favoured in the sight of God just for exercising basic charity.

2. Those with physical disabilities.

Paternalism can also become evident in writing or speaking about those whose physical or mental abilities are impaired through birth or accident. There is the tendency to state unequivocally that these people need support to make them "truly human" or that they are to be pitied for their condition or that they are unable to live in an independent fashion.

The person with two functioning arms and legs is not inherently better than the person with less dexterity or mobility. People should not need to feel economically, mentally or physically superior to another person in order to help them. In a truly human community, all are dependent upon one another to make life whole.

Disability itself is a general term used for a permanent or semi.permanent condition that may interfere with a person's ability to do something independently—see, walk, hear, learn, lift. It could be physical, mental or sensory. The preferred usage is as a descriptive noun. Say "persons who are disabled," "people with disabilities," or "disabled persons," rather than "the disabled, crippled, deformed or invalid.

It may not be necessary to refer to a person's disability when writing or speaking about that disablility. Avoid portraying persons with disabilities who accomplish things as superhuman. Such a portrayal suggests that persons who are disabled have no unusual gifts. It also sensationalizes a disability to say that a person is "afflicted with," or "a victim of" that disability.

Avoid emotional descriptions of disabilities such as "unfortunate," or "pitiful." Emphasize abilities by saying that a person "uses a wheelchair," rather than pointing out that a person is "confined to a wheelchair." It is better to say a person "walks with crutches" than to call them "crippled," to say that they are "partially sighted" rather than "partially blind."

Persons with disabilities are not necessarily chronically ill, and disabilities themselves are not necessarily illnesses.

The National Institute of Handicapped Research in the United States has suggested some of the following terminology to give a positive, more humane portrayal of specific disabilities.

"Handicap" is often used as a synonym for disability; but that usage has become less acceptable. It is more appropriate to say "the stairs are a handicap for her," than to say "the handicapped child could not use the stairs."

"Blind" means total loss of vision. Many people with white canes or guide dogs are "partially sighted" or "visually impaired." In the same manner, "deaf" means a total hearing loss. "hearing impairment" or "partial hearing loss" is more appropriate in most cases.

Some hearing impaired persons are capable of speech and not all persons unable to speak are deaf. Terms such as deaf-mute or deaf and dumb are inappropriate because they suggest that all persons with one disability may be assumed to have the other.

A "congenital disability" is one that has existed from birth. "Birth defect" is not an appropriate term.

Disabilities incurred before adulthood and which significantly inhibit major activities are often referred to as "developmental disabilities." These include such things as mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or other disease processes. When possible, refer to a specific disability to avoid suggesting that a person's entire being is hindered by the condition. "Specific learning disability" describes a disorder that may have nothing to do with physical disabilities or mental retardation.

"Down's syndrome" is a specific form of mental retardation. ("Mongoloid" is no longer an acceptable way to refer to persons with Down's syndrome.) It is better to say "a person with epilepsy" rather than refer to a person as "an epileptic," a term which suggests their whole being in relation to their ailment.

"Mental disorder" is a more appropriate term than "mentally deranged", "deviant," or "crazy." Terms such as neurotic, psychotic, psychopathic and schizophrenic are technical terms and should not be used casually.

In writing about persons with and without disabilities, "nondisabled" is the appropriate term. "Able bodied" should not be used, since it implies that persons with disabilities are less able. "Normal" is appropriate only in reference to statistical norms.

Language should place the care that Christians show for others and the sharing that they do with others in this context of mutuality and interdependence and not in a fashion which makes one party dependent upon the other.

In full communion with The Anglican Church of Canada
© Copyright 2007 Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada