“All men are created equal,” wrote our founding fathers back in the day when women were not usually part of the conversation. We’ve come a long way since then, but there are still plenty of occasions when we may need to think more about inclusive language at our websites.
If your target market includes men and women, people of diverse backgrounds, and individuals with differing abilities, you won’t want to make any of them feel excluded. That’s where inclusive language comes in.
In the past, you could use “he” as a general pronoun. You could write, “A patient may book an appointment with the next available doctor, or he can specify his own physician if he prefers to wait.” This was grammatically correct. Nowadays, it is still grammatically correct, but women don’t feel that they are included in that “he.”
“They” can now be used as a singular pronoun, as in, “A patient may book an appointment with the next available doctor, or they can specify their own physician if they prefer to wait.” This usage is turning up in plenty of style guides nowadays, and there are plenty of individuals who choose to style themselves “they.” There are also plenty of die-hards who consider it grammatically incorrect.
If it’s uncomfortable for you or your target audience to use “they” as a singular pronoun, you can switch to plural usage: “Patients may book appointments with the next available doctors, or they can specify…”
It is also fine to use “he or she.” In that case, you’d have “…or he or she can specify his or her own physician…” Another possibility is to alternate “she” and “he.”
It’s important to be consistent. If you use “they” as a singular pronoun in one sentence of a paragraph, don’t switch to “he” later in that paragraph.
We recently came upon this question while working on a website discussing expectant mothers. The client’s content draft sometimes referred to expectant mums as “they” and sometimes as “she.” We wanted to make it consistent. And we kind of feel like expectant mothers are usually going to be female, in the nature of things.
After some discussion, however, we realized that we couldn’t really plan to use pronouns on the basis of inferred real world circumstances. Assuming that pregnant people are female may seem logical, but the same logic could lead us to choose “he” for hospital CEOs. They’re usually male.
The pronoun question should be a grammatical decision. Once you’ve made that decision, add it to your style guide and free your writers from speculation.
Another website we’re working on needed to specify where people with disabilities could find parking designed for their needs. “Handicapped” is no longer used in referring to human beings, but we often see “handicapped parking.” The correct term, “accessible parking,” could actually be confusing for some readers. They might understand it to mean parking which could be accessed by drivers in general — available parking, as opposed to the specialized parking which would not be accessible to just anyone.
In this case, we went ahead and used the more acceptable term. The context made the meaning clear, and we figure people who are new to the phrase will learn it over time.
Acceptable terms also change over time. The United States had the Spanish flu and the Hong Kong flu in the 20th century, but it is not acceptable to refer to COVID-1`9 as “the Chinese flu.” If you’re not sure what terms are acceptable, find out.
The rest of the sentence
Sometimes it’s not a question of a single word.
WordPress.com reminds us not to use phrases like “suffer from” when discussing disabilities. The same article says we should put people first — referring to “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people,” for example.
You may be able to finesse pronoun controversy and be cautious about offensive vocabulary, but you still need to pay attention to the possible implications of the language you use.
Are we telling you to be nervous? No. We’re telling you to be aware, to pay attention, and to be open to discussions of inclusive language as you work on your web content. Add it to your list of things to think about when you proofread.