Inclusive language in writing

Utrecht University welcomes everyone. In our choice of words and concepts, we take into account the diversity of backgrounds, positions, identities, and so on, of our students and staff. Through inclusive language, we demonstrate that we respect and value everyone. 

Inclusive language considers the addressee or those discussed and aims to avoid words and expressions that (unconsciously) confirm stereotypes, establish certain (dominant) norms as the standard, or reproduce certain (traditional) values and expectations.

Using inclusive language when writing is a great starting point, but inclusive communication goes beyond written language. Inclusive communication also extends to the use of images, words and symbols. Be aware of images that may have been created with an (unconscious) bias in mind, and make sure to keep diversity in mind when choosing illustrations to accompany text.

    Inclusive language in a nutshell

    • Ask people which pronouns they wish to use.
    • Be aware of stereotypical associations of words and expressions.
    • Note diversity in gender and sexual orientation.
    • Avoid hierarchical or normative words and expressions.
    • Do not identify people with their limitations.

    People’s looks or names may not reflect the way they wish to be identified. It is often best not to assume, but instead to ask the person in question about their preferred pronouns.

    • “He, him” refers to men specifically or people identifying as male.
    • “She, her” refers to women specifically or people identifying as female.
    • “They, their” is the gender neutral form of address in English, to be used when in doubt, when the distinction is not relevant, or for people who do not identify as male or female.
    • Use inclusive forms of address like “dear all,” or “welcome all.”

    The plural they is the gender neutral form of address in English. In contemporary English it is generally acceptable to use "they/their" as a gender-neutral term in the singular or plural. For example:

    • "If students would like feedback, they may pick up their paper on Friday."
    • "One of my students is ill. They won't be in class this week.”
    Using gender-neutral words

    The use of gender-neutral words is preferred, such as partner, colleague, user, person, people, youth. Previous guidelines favoured male forms which are not neutral. Alum and PhD candidate are neutral forms.

    Using plural or a relative clause is an easy way to avoid gender bias. Examples:

    • If students use the sporting facilities on campus they will receive a reduced rate.
    • More inclusive: “A complainant who is not satisfied with the board’s decision can ask for a rehearing.”
    • Less inclusive: “If a complainant is not satisfied with the board’s decision, he can ask for a rehearing.”

    Avoid using the male form as a generic address and avoid (stereotypical) female professions. Examples:

    • “humankind” or “humanity” instead of “mankind”
    • “artificial” instead of “man-made”
    • “staffing” instead of “manpower”
    • “firefighter” instead of “fireman”
      Sexual orientation

      The term "gender” is used to refer to social and psychological identity whereas “sex” is used for physical attributes. Terms like “sexual orientation” or “sexual diversity” are preferred over “sexual preference.”

      There are several options for collective terms referring to people with sexual orientations other than heterosexual. Utrecht University uses LGBTQI+. The abbreviation is used to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people while also acknowledging the limitations of this terminology (through the plus).

      Please note: all of the above terms are adjectives rather than nouns and should be used as such. In addition, these terms are preferred ways of referring to sexual diversity:

      • Cis(gender) people refers to people whose gender matches their physical attributes at birth.
      • Trans(gender) people / women / men refers to people whose conceptualisation of their sex/gender differs from their physical attributes at birth.
      • Intersex people refers to people whose physical attributes at birth differ from their culture’s normative definitions of male or female.

      All Dutch citizens are Dutch.

      Use "white person” or “person of colour” if skin colour is relevant.

      Do not use words or expressions with a normative or hierarchical bias. Write “marginalised people” instead of “minorities” to refer to people with less social and political power. Avoid negatives that confirm stereotypes or norms, like “non-western” or “non-white.

      Physical or psychological disabilities

      Do not associate people with their disabilities to avoid (unintentionally) discriminating, marginalising and stigmatising people with afunctional impairment (ableism).

      Avoid unnecessary references to physical, mental or psychological abilities of a person or group. If it is important to indicate that someone has a disability, use the relevant term as adjective rather than noun. For example, avoid “the blind,” “the hard of hearing,” or “autists,” but refer to “a researcher with a visual impairment,” (rather than: a blind researcher), “a student who is hard of hearing,” or “people with autism.”

      Avoid calling people with disabilities “victims” or ”patients.” When referring to impairments, use the connective “with” rather than verbs that convey bias like “suffering from” or “fighting.” Do not use impairments in a figurative sense, like “blind spot” or “spastic”.

      Further reading