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Inclusive Language Style Guide

Why should we learn about and use Inclusive language? 

Dickinson is committed to creating and fostering a just and inclusive environment, and respectful language is an important part of this work. When we are able to make informed, careful decisions about the language we use, we are better able to communicate effectively with others. But in light of significant and widespread changes in language use—in society as a whole and also at Dickinson—it can be difficult to know if our language use is appropriately respectful.

The key to effective communication includes knowing how best to convey information in a way that signals respect for all. 

About This Guide

The all-college committee on Equity, Inclusivity & Belonging (EIB) offers this Inclusive Language Style Guide as an addendum to the Dickinson Style Guide, which, in turn, is rooted in Associated Press (AP) Style. AP Style editors regularly update the guide to reflect major changes in language use, including changes spurred by social-justice movements. Because not all Dickinson community members subscribe to AP Style, this reference draws from AP updates and from other authoritative sources, including campus experts, to provide a basic guide to inclusive language for Dickinsonians seeking ways to communicate in a way that resonates with Dickinson values.  

Because inclusive language use is evolving, our work in this area is ongoing as well as vital. This guide, then, is neither final nor at all comprehensive. Instead, it serves as a basic reference-in-progress—a useful starting point for Dickinsonians who wish to better understand the importance of inclusive language as well as to identify best practices for some of the most commonly used related terms.

Abilities and Disabilities  

As with gender, race, nationality, etc., appropriate terminology related to ability and disability is evolving. To foster respectful and inclusive communications on the part of media professionals and others, the National Center on Disability and Journalism created the useful and term-searchable Disability Language Style Guide. Another useful resource is the APA Style: Disability Guidelines, a subpage of the American Psychological Association (APA) Bias-Free Language Guide. These Access & Disability Services-recommended websites provide insights as to which disability-related terms are advisable to use in everyday communications and which terms should only be used in a medical context (the latter includes “abnormal,” “deformity” and “lame”).  

These guides also clarify whether the appropriate usage of certain terms may depend on the wishes of the audience. Although some members of disability communities embrace identity-first language (e.g., “blind person,” “deaf student,” and -- for some -- “disabled people,” based on the environment being disabling), others (including a majority of Dickinson students with disabilities who responded to an ADS survey on the question), prefer language that focusses on the person first and then the disability (e.g., “a person on the autism spectrum,” “a student with dyslexia”), unless someone indicates a preference for being identified by disability first.  The best practice, when possible, is to identify and use the terminology most preferred by the individual about whom you are writing. 

Sometimes, in an effort to be inclusive, individuals may inadvertently use disability-related language that is inaccurate. For example, referring to a woman who is totally blind as “visually impaired,” may give the false impression that she has limited sight. The blog post “What is the difference between visual impairment and blindness?” addresses this issue. Furthermore, debate exists about the term “impaired.” Although organizations such as the American Federation for the Blind use the term “visually impaired,” there are those who object to the term “impairment” when describing a disability. It is widely recommended to refer to individuals with limited vision as having “low vision.”  

General rules of thumb regarding the use of disability-related language: 

  • Refer to a disability or condition only when it is relevant to the circumstance or story.  
  • Consult guides like the table below to become more aware of respectful terminology.
  • When in doubt, ask a person you are writing or speaking about to clarify how they wish to be described.  



suffers from, afflicted by, victim of

has x; is a person with y




person without a disability

mentally or emotionally disturbed

person with a mental-health disability 

deaf or mute



person with a physical disability

handicap parking

accessible parking

confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound

person who uses a wheelchair; person who is a wheelchair-user; person with a mobility disability  

mental retardation    

intellectual disability    

midget or dwarf

person of short stature, little person


person who has epilepsy


person with brain injuries or a traumatic brain injury (TBI)

learning disabled

person with a learning disability

the disabled, the handicapped, handi-capable, differently abled

people with disabilities**; neurodiverse, neurodivergent, non-neurotypical people (for those with non-physical disabilities)

*The term "crip" was historically used to stigmatize or oppress people with physical disabilities. It has been reclaimed by many physically disabled members of the disability community and popularized by the award-winning documentary Crip Camp.
**See the second paragraph above regarding “person-first” and "identity first" language.

Faith, Religion and Spirituality
  • Agnostic, atheist: An atheist does not believe that deities exist. An agnostic does not profess to know whether a supernatural force, such as God or gods, exists, and also believes that this cannot be known.  
  • Cult: A loaded term describing a system of belief and practice that’s perceived as unorthodox and spurious, and that’s centered on devotion to a particular figure or object. This term also describes the persons and community of those who practice this belief system/faith. “Cult” is typically used to describe relatively new, small-group religious communities and practices that are perceived by those outside the group to be strange, exploitative and possibly threatening. 
    “Cult” is sometimes erroneously used to describe a variety of religions, beliefs, faith traditions and communities—and social phenomena--that are new or relatively new, and are subjectively deemed unfamiliar or ed non-mainstream, with negative connotations. Although the word “cult” is often casually used to describe a group of persons’ extreme devotion or interest in a person, thing or cultural phenomena, we advise you to use this word with extreme caution. 
  • Dones: A relatively new term referring to those who previously identified with and/or practiced a particular religion or faith tradition but no longer do so. 
  • Humanism, secularism: Humanism is a philosophy or system that focuses on self-realization and meaning-making achieved through reason and adherence through humanistic values, rather than through devotion to a deity or supernatural force. Typically, humanists, and in particular secular humanists, reject the supernatural in favor of naturalism, reason and logic. Secularism implies rejection or exclusion of religion and religious practice and/or indifference to religion and religious practice. 
  • Nones: A relatively new term referring to those who do not identify with a particular religion or faith tradition. This can include agnostics and atheists, but it can also include those who adhere to/believe in parts of one or more religions or faith traditions, but not all. Together, nones, (deriving from, but not necessarily accurately reflecting the phrase “nothing in particular”) comprise a large and growing segment of the population, according to recent U.S. Census polling. Nones also may include dones.  
  • Religion, spirituality: Religion is an organized system of faith/beliefs, practice and worship. Spirituality is an individualized quality, state and/or practice relating to the sacred and/or sacred matters. A spiritual person may or may not be religious. (Spirituality is not the same as spiritualism, a belief and practice centering on communication with the dead.)   

Gender and Sexuality


The age-old rule is that pronouns should agree with the antecedent. (He enjoys knitting. She enjoys sports. They both enjoy hiking.) That remains generally true, but with an update: In order to signal respect for all persons, keep in mind that not all persons identify in the same way. For this reason, we are seeing an increasing use of gender-neutral pronouns on campus and in the wider world. 

  • When writing or speaking about groups of people, or about persons in the abstract:  
    • Generally, avoid gendered language by recasting the sentence.  
      Example: Instead of “Any student who wishes to take the exam early should ask his professor,” consider “A student who wishes to take the exam early should ask the professor.” Or “Students who wish to take the exam early should request permission.” Instead of “Every accountant is careful to get his taxes in on time,” try “Accountants are careful to get their taxes in on time.” 
    • If unable to recast the sentence elegantly/clearly, or if nongendered pronoun use is important to the context, consider using “they” as a nongendered pronoun. Be aware that many readers may not be familiar with this usage, and may be less familiar with alternate pronouns, such as zhe, xe or ze. A brief explanation on first reference can be helpful. 
  • If you are unsure of a person’s pronouns, respectfully ask. Do not reveal nontraditional pronouns without obtaining their permission. As above, to avoid confusion among readers who may be unfamiliar with the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, consider recasting the sentence, either as above, or by substituting the person’s name for the pronoun.   
  • Use a plural verb when using “they” as a singular pronoun (e.g., “They are in my math class.”). 
  • When using indefinite pronouns (someone, everyone, anyone), recast the sentence to avoid gendered pronouns.  


Avoid using outdated, gendered phrases. Example: “He manned the ship.” A better alternative: “He steered the ship.”  

Commonly used examples: 

  • “first-year”: This is preferred over “freshman.” 
  • “chair”: This is preferred over “chairman.” 
  • “woman/women” or “person/persons/people”: These terms are preferred over “girl/girls,” when referring to female-identifying persons 18 and over.
  • “man” and “person/persons/people”: These terms are preferred over “boy/boys” in reference to male-identifying persons 18 and older .

Avoid writing broadly about sexual orientation and gender identity and be aware of exclusionary, heteronormative attitudes and behavior in your speech and writing. Most Dickinsonians will never need to write about another person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but if this information is pertinent to your writing, be sure to obtain permission before writing about an individual’s identity and/or preferences, and be sure to use the correct terminology.  

Here are a few guidelines culled from AP Style:  

  • bi: This is an appropriate abbreviation for “bisexual” (used to describe people attracted to more than one gender) but should be spelled out on first reference. Not to be confused with bigender (persons who identify as a combination of two genders). Spell out on first reference.  
  • cis: This is an appropriate abbreviation for “cisgender” (used to describe people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth), but only after first reference.  
  • cross-dresser: This is the preferred term to describe people who wear clothing associated with a different gender; avoid using this term unless the person you’re writing about has expressed that they identify as such. Always avoid using the outdated term “transvestite.”  
  • gay: This is appropriate when used as an adjective (“a gay man”); avoid using “gay” as a noun. Avoid the outdated word “homosexual” in broad use.  
  • gender-nonconforming: This adjective is used to describe people who do not conform to gender expectations. It is acceptable in broad references.      
  • heterosexual/straight: This is acceptable in reference to a man who is attracted to women and a woman who is attracted to men.
  • LGBTQ: This umbrella term refers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities. It is also appropriate to include a “+” sign after the Q, typically referring to those who are questioning their sexual identities. An alternate term, LGBTQIA, additionally refers to asexual and intersex persons. All are appropriate. Be sure to explain the acronym on first reference.   


Race, Ethnicity and Nationality  

As stated in the 2021 AP Style Guide, “some words and phrases that seem innocuous to one group can carry negative connotations, and even be seen as slurs to another. Be sensitive to your varied audiences.” Identify race and ethnicity only when relevant.  

Here are a few guidelines:  

  • AAPI: This is an appropriate abbreviation for Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders. Spell out on first reference. A broader term than the more specific Asian American and Pacific Islander. 
  • African American: See Black and African American.
  • Alaska Natives: This refers to Indigenous groups in Alaska. 
  • Arab American: This is used to describe Americans of Arab descent. Follow the person’s preference, but in general, refer to the person’s country of origin when possible (e.g., Egyptian American).  
  • Asian American: Use the full term; do not shorten to “Asian” or “Asians.” 
  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color): This is more commonly used, though somewhat more controversial, than the term “POC” (People of Color). Always spell out on first reference, as in: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).  
  • Black(s) and African American(s): Note that "Black" is uppercase. Capitalizing “Black” in this usage is a reflection on the fact that, particularly in the United States, “Black” refers to a shared sense of identity as well as race. Avoid the use of outdated terms, such as “Negro” or “colored,” when possible (except when naming organizations such as the NAACP and UNCF).
     Note: “African American” may also be used, although the terms are not interchangeable. Some people may identify as Black, rather than as African American, because they do not feel connected to America and/or are not American citizens. Others may identify as Black because they do not identify with the African continent. There are various political, personal, social and historical reasons why one might prefer to identify as Black or as African American.
    In keeping with general inclusive-language best practices, whenever possible, opt to use the term of preference of the person referenced.
  • biracial/multiracial: This is used to describe a person identifying with more than one race. 
  • Black Lives Matter, #BlackLivesMatter: Refers to a worldwide social-justice movement to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy and oppose violence against Black people. Launched after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Can be shortened to BLM on second reference. 
  • Chicano, Chicana, Chicanx: These terms refer to Mexican Americans and, sometimes, Central Americans living in the United States. They carry a distinct political connotation that emphasizes status as a nonwhite population of Indigenous descent present in the Southwest at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48). There are various political, personal, social and historical reasons why one might prefer to identify as Chicana/o/x or as Mexican American. As a best practice, use the term preferred by the individual in question. See also: Latino/Latina/Latinx.
  • dual-heritage terminologies: Italian American, African American, Caribbean American, Asian American, etc. Note the absence of hyphens.  
  • First Nation: Indigenous tribes in Canada. 
  • foreign: Avoid using this term to describe people and things outside of the United States. Instead, use more inclusive language: world languages, global travel, etc. 
  • Hispanic: See Latino, Latina, Latinx. 
  • Indian: Use to describe people and cultures of the South Asian nation of India. 
  • Indigenous: Use a capital “I” when referring to original inhabitants of a place.  
  • Juneteenth: Short for “June Nineteenth,” the anniversary of the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to ensure that enslaved persons in the U.S. were freed. The troops arrived two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.    
  • Latin American: Relating to Latin America, or a person from Latin America or of Latin American descent. Please note that this umbrella term refers to geography. There are many different countries, cultures, languages and races represented within Latin America. See Latin, Latina, Latinx for additional context.  
  • Latino, Latina, Latinx:  "Latino/Latinos" refers to male-identifying persons of Spanish-speaking heritage/culture who were born in or have ancestral ties to a Latin-American country or other Spanish-speaking country, such as Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in the Caribbean. "Latina/Latinas" refers to female-identifying persons from a Spanish-speaking land or culture, or whose ancestors hailed from a Spanish-speaking land or from Latin American, where many languages are spoken and different races and cultures are represented.  "Latinos" and "Latinx" are both used to describe mixed-gender groups.  
    "Latinx" is the gender-neutral term.  Because “Latinx” is the most recently adopted term among these, it may be unfamiliar to some readers/listeners/viewers. Depending on the audience, a brief explanation may be appropriate. 

    While "Hispanic" and "Latino/Latina/Latinx" are often used interchangeably, they are distinct terms. “Hispanic” refers to persons who come from, or whose ancestors came from a Spanish-speaking land—the emphasis here is on language. “Latino/Latina/Latinx” additionally refers to people from, or whose ancestors are from, Latin America—including Latin-American lands where Spanish is not the primary language. Both terms include persons and peoples representing a variety of countries, cultures and races. 

    "Latino, Latina and Latinx" are generally preferred over “Hispanic” and also over “Chicano,” a term sometimes used to describe Mexican Americans, particularly in the Southwest U.S. However, use the term preferred by the individual in question. When possible and appropriate, use more specific terms, such as Puerto Rican or Mexican American. 
  • Minority, racial minority: Historically, “minority” was used to describe non-white races and ethnicities in the U.S. Be careful when using this term in this context. In general use, it may be viewed as a minimizing term. It is also easily misunderstood; populations historically considered to be minorities in the U.S. have grown considerably in recent decades or years.  Never use “minority” as a singular noun (referring to a specific person), unless as part of a direct quotation.   
  • Native Americans/American Indians: These terms are acceptable when describing two or more persons of different tribal affiliations, or when tribal affiliation is unknown. If tribal affiliation is known, use the more specific term, as in “a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.”  
  • Oriental: Used to describe East Asian objects (art, cuisine, etc.). Do not use to describe persons. 
  • People of Color (POC): Along with BIPOC, this is an acceptable term to describe non-white-identifying persons. Always spell out on first reference.  
  • racism: Racism is a belief/doctrine asserting racial differences and the superiority of one race over another; it can also be used to describe feelings of bigotry toward people of another race. More specifically, racism is racial prejudice in existing in conjunction with a misuse of institutional and social power and an accepted ideology of white superiority and the use of power to deny other racial groups the dignity, quality of life and freedoms awarded to the dominant race (adapted from Byrd & Scott, 2018). Racism is also a system of oppression maintained by institutions and cultural “norms” that exploit, control, and oppress people of color in order to maintain a position of social and material supremacy and privilege for white people, particularly the powerful and wealthy elite. (Source: The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond See: Systemic/structural racism.  
  • slaves: When referring to enslaved persons, the term “enslaved persons” is preferable. This is because the term “slave” is an implication of an individual’s identity, whereas “enslaved person” indicates that an individual was forced into the circumstance of enslavement and their identity is not defined by their circumstance. 
  • tribe: A tribe is a sovereign political entity; communities sharing a common ancestry, culture or language; and a social group of linked families who may be part of an ethnic group. Capitalize when part of a formal name.  
  • white: Use “white” with a lowercase “w” when referring to Caucasians. Preferable to the word “Caucasian” in nearly all uses. It remains lowercase in reference to the fact that whiteness, in mainstream society, is typically viewed as a race, rather than as a shared sense of identity.  


Additional Resources  

As noted above, this style guide refers only to a small portion of all there is to know about inclusive language. For more guidance on inclusive terminology, you might find it helpful to consult these useful resources: 

  • Inclusive Language Guidelines: this downloadable pdf from the American Psychological Association includes guidance on terms related to equity and power, the use of person-first vs. identity-first language, and how to avoid microaggressions when writing and speaking.
  • The Diversity Style Guide: a term-searchable website designed to help journalists and other media professionals use language regarding diverse individuals with accuracy, authority, and sensitivity.  
  • Conscious Style Guide: connects readers to additional resources and articles using the subcategories of ability & disability, age, appearance, empowerment, ethnicity, race & nationality, gender, sex, and sexuality, health, socioeconomic status, spirituality religion, & atheism, and more. 
  • The APA’s Bias-Free Language Guidelines: includes searchable language guidance specific to similar subcategories 

Please also consider referring to the expertise and guides available through our Dickinson offices and experts who focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

Your feedback is welcome! Please email questions and comments to


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