by Michael Bedford
Published at 2018-09-18
Inclusive writing is often confused with politically correct writing, but political correctness isn’t an author’s main goal when writing inclusively. Instead, inclusive writing seeks to limit reader alienation by avoiding the use of phrases and terms that include some demographics at the expense of excluding others.
When writing inclusively, a glossary of politically correct and incorrect terms could be used as a reference, but this glossary would act as a rough guide rather than the supreme authority on inclusive writing. In some cases, politically incorrect terms may be the most inclusive. As with so many other facets of writing in English, context is key.
This is one distinction that many new writers and editors fail to make when writing about cultural, social, or ethnic groups of which they’re not a part. In our daily work, writers and editors make reference to style guides and other prescriptive documents that define “correct” usage.
The problem with this method of researching appropriate usage is that many marginalized communities weren’t consulted when authors drafted these guides. This means that legitimate linguistic concerns that members of these groups had, and in many cases still have, have historically been ignored.
Some usage guides, such as Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style, are working to temper proper usage with understanding, and, thankfully, many authors are paying attention. But, in addition to consulting resources like Younging’s guide, writers and editors should also determine what terms and phrases are preferred by the group(s) they’re writing about rather than waiting for an authoritative source to weigh in. (See Jonathan’s review of this guide.)
Bob Joseph, the founder of Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., advises attendants of his workshops to “go with what they are calling themselves.” As obvious as this advice might seem, generations of inaccuracy have made the linguistic dilemma over how to refer to Indigenous groups in Canada seem trickier than it is.
Although “Indigenous” is now the Canadian legal umbrella term for any Indigenous group in Canada, Canadian legal terms have historically run afoul of the linguistic preferences of the Indigenous communities they describe.
Some Indigenous communities balk at the word “Indian,” where others have adopted it. Some Indigenous communities refer to themselves as bands, and some refer to themselves as nations. It’s important to remember that Indigenous communities in Canada don’t represent a single demographic. Instead, Indigenous communities in Canada represent a multitude of demographics, all with their own cultural variations on terminology. The terminology that works for the Osoyoos Indian Band doesn’t work for the M’Chigeeng First Nation, and vice versa.
Although Bob Joseph’s versatile advice refers specifically to Indigenous groups in Canada, one can employ it when writing for and about any demographic. For instance, when considering matters of gender neutrality, it’s best to use language accepted by the communities about which one is writing rather than subjugating those communities for the sake of linguistic accuracy.
Surprisingly, this advice might put some grammar and usage pedants on edge. Much hot air has been issued recently discussing the appropriateness of using the gender-neutral terms “they,” “their,” and “them” to refer to singular subjects. Pedants claim that constructions such as “Their preference was to use a gender-neutral pronoun,” where “their” represents a single person, are faulty because “their,” “they,” and “them” are meant to describe plural subjects only.
This seems like a persuasive argument built on concerns about the degradation of the English language until one finds out that writers have been using “their,” “they,” and “them” to describe singular subjects for centuries with little to no detrimental effect on the English language.
For more on using "they," see Mary Cullen's excellent article "How to Use the Singular They" at Instructional Solutions.
Political correctness has been much maligned over the years, but its origins are honest: when writers and editors worry about what groups of people want to be called, rather than worrying about what other editorial professionals call them, they augment their writing rather than limit it.
That said, a legalistic approach to using the English language based on concerns about political correctness is limiting and often excludes the very groups that politically correct usage is supposed to include. As with so many other questions of usage, context is king…wait…queen…wait…monarch.
Note: Another article that provides great insight is Christopher Tate's "Embracing the Singular 'They' as a Gender-Neutral Pronoun."
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.
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