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Introduction to language guidelines

Published onOct 20, 2022
Introduction to language guidelines


What is inclusive language? According to the Linguistic Society of America, “Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.”

While each section in this part of the guidelines delves into a specific topic, there are several overarching ideas to keep in mind.


First, consider how the narrative is framed. The FrameWorks Institute defines framing as “the choices we make in what we say and how we say it,” including “what we emphasize, how and what we explain, [and] what we leave unsaid.”

Who is telling the story? From what perspective is the situation viewed? It is easy for authors to write from their own perspective, an ethnocentric point of view, simply because this is how they naturally see the world. Other times, the point of view is that of whatever group is considered “default” or has power in society. One example of this is Eurocentrism, or Western bias.


the attitude that one's own group, ethnicity, or nationality is superior to others


the tendency to interpret the world in terms of European or Anglo-American values and experiences

It is common for the default point of view to be centered on so-called Western countries, like the US, UK, and other predominantly white, higher- income countries. As discussed in the Geopolitics section, one must consider if this is the most appropriate framing for the text, particularly if the context is international or the subject of the text exists outside the “default” group.

Has anyone been left out? Whether intentional or not, it is possible for the dominant voice or perspective to silence those who are not included (Woodley). For example, Usha Lee McFarling notes that health equity tourism is growing, “where researchers with little or no background or training in health equity research, often white and already well-funded, are rushing in to scoop up grants and publish papers” without including or citing the Black and Brown researchers whose work already exists in the field. Another example is the book Bad and Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology, which was written by a White woman. The book was pulled after publication due to accusations of cultural appropriation and problematic portrayal of the very culture it focused on, Black women in hip hop (Alter and Harris, 2022).

Order and lists

Keep the status quo and “default” groups in mind when ordering information and presenting lists. It is common to present statistics or numbers in order from largest to smallest, or vice versa. However, this can sometimes be problematic as it may result in the dominant power group always being listed first. For example, in countries like the US, documenting statistics of population will usually result in White being listed first, reinforcing the idea that White is the default or “normal” race in that country. It may also imply that that group is the intended audience (Schwabish). To avoid this, the information might be ordered randomly or in alphabetical order.

Relevancy and specificity

Ask whether the information is relevant to the topic at hand. Does a person’s immigration status, race, gender identity, and so on matter in this context? If it does, it is best to be as specific as necessary. Avoid generalizations. Don’t say “older Asian people” if you mean “Chinese women over the age of 70.”

Person-first language

In most cases it is preferable to emphasize the person over the attribute. For example, “person with cancer” instead of “cancer patient”, “man in prison” instead of “inmate.” Emphasizing the attribute can reduce the person to a label and dehumanize them.


Whenever possible, ask the person or group what terms they use. Language is always evolving and there is not always agreement about the best word to use. For examples, see the sections on Race and Gender identity.


Alter, A., & Harris, E. A. (2022, April 15). A white author’s book about black feminism was pulled after a social media outcry. The New York Times.

Anti-Defamation League. (n.d.). Challenging biased language.

FrameWorks Institute. (n.d.). Framing 101.

Linguistic Society of America. (2016, November). Guidelines for inclusive language.

McFarling, U. L. (2021, September 23). ‘Health equity tourists’: How white scholars are colonizing research on health disparities. STAT.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-a). Ethnocentrism. In dictionary.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.-b). Eurocentrism. In dictionary.

Schwabish, J., & Feng, A. (2021, September). Do no harm guide: Applying equity awareness in data visualization. Urban Institute.

Woodley, L., Pratt, K., Bakker, A., Bertipaglia, C., Dow, E. El Zein, R., Johns, B., Kuwana, E., Lower, E., Roca, A., & Santistevan, C. (2021). CSCCE Glossary: Inclusive language in community building. Zenodo.

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