Home / For staff / Inclusive language guide
Open notepad with pen lying on top

Inclusive language

We are committed to promoting and maintaining an inclusive culture. We support each other to create an environment where equality and diversity thrives. 

We recognise that the way people write and speak about others can support equality, diversity and inclusion; but using certain language can also exclude, discriminate or undermine certain groups based on age, race, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation. 

References to people’s personal attributes must be appropriate, relevant and used consistently. We need to recognise social and cultural differences, while avoiding biases, slang or expressions. 

Language is constantly changing, so the meanings and associations of words can also change. This guide outlines current UK inclusive language best practice, but you should follow some general principles on inclusive communication rather than simply relying on specific words and phrases, which could change over time.

As a general rule:

  • Take an individualised approach; we are all different and we are not defined by one aspect of who we are.
  • Only mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity or ability when relevant.
  • Respect people’s privacy, let them share personal information about themselves only where they feel comfortable doing so; don’t probe.
  • Be guided by the terms people use to describe themselves. Where appropriate, ask.
  • Avoid irrelevant references to a characteristic e.g. a female doctor, a single mother.
  • Avoid stereotyping by making positive or negative generalisations about groups of people.
  • Don’t define someone by their characteristics, always put the person first e.g. a person with a disability not a disabled person.
  • If you are listing personal characteristics or titles, put them in alphabetical order to show they all have equal value and where possible include the option of “prefer not to say”.
  • If you make a mistake, apologise, correct it, learn from it and move on.

If you have any questions about inclusive language or the content of this guide, please contact Ruth Purvis, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, or our Communications Team.

Gender

Gender specific language can reinforce stereotypes, with the effect of undermining certain people. We now recognise a wider range of gender identities than just male and female. Inclusive language should be used to recognise and include everyone, irrespective of their gender identity. 

Whilst the term gender is often used interchangeably with sex and gender identity, they mean very different things. 

Sex refers to the biological aspects of an individual as determined by their anatomy, which is produced by their chromosomes, hormones and their interactions; generally male or female, sometimes inter-sex, and something that is assigned or assumed at birth.

Gender is a social construction relating to behaviours and attributes based on labels of masculinity (man) and femininity (woman).

Gender identity is a personal, internal perception of oneself and so the gender someone identifies with may not match the sex they were assigned at birth (a person who is trans). An individual may see themselves as a man, a woman, as having no gender, or as having a non-binary gender – where people identify as somewhere on a spectrum between man and woman. People have the right to self-identify, and those who reject the binary tick-boxes, may describe themselves as non-binary or gender-queer.

In language terms, the most inclusive strategy is to avoid references to a person’s gender except where it is pertinent to the discussion. This often involves seeking gender neutrality when using terms, expressions and pronouns. This gender-neutral approach avoids stereotyping people according to their gender and making offensive mistakes.

In conversation, if you don’t know a person’s gender and/or how they identify, use gender neutral language until they indicate their gender and/or terms they would like you to use. It is important to take cues from the individual. If someone shares their trans identity with you, you should ask them how they would prefer you to address them, which pronouns they prefer and if relevant to the situation, what language they prefer.

If it is not possible or appropriate to ask a trans person which pronouns they would like you to use, use the pronouns that are consistent with the person’s appearance.

Example to use:

  • “Welcome friends and colleagues”
  • Partner / spouse
  • Gender neutral pronouns such as they, them, theirs when speaking to a person who is non-binary, prefers non-binary pronouns or where the gender is not confirmed

Age

Generalisations based on age can stereotype and undermine people. Avoid using terminology that assumes people of a certain age or generation are the same, with similar skills, abilities, ambition and / or views. Focus on skills and abilities rather than years of experience. Older people are not all “grumpy” or “bad with technology”, women around the age of 50 are all not “menopausal”, and young people are not all “lazy” or “snowflakes”. 

Examples to use include:

  • Older people
  • Young people, young adult
  • Early career researcher
  • Younger generation

Disability

Language used to portray disabled people has traditionally emphasised the disability rather than the person,  and can be used to create a homogenous group of people with disabilities, irrespective of the nature of the disability and ability.

In most circumstances there is no need to mention or refer to someone’s disability at all. If it is required, ensure you take a person-centered approach instead of focussing on the disability.

Examples to use:

  • Person with / living with a disability
  • Person without a disability
  • Person with a learning difficulty
  • Person of restricted growth
  • People who are deaf / hard of hearing
  • People who are blind / visually impaired
  • Mental health
  • Accessible toilet / accessible life / accessible car parking

Sexual orientation 

The enduring bias in society against lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people makes many people feel invisible, marginalised and inferior to heterosexual people. Language that refers to people’s sexual orientation needs to be accurate and appropriate, so that it does not exclude people or cause offence.

Although sexual orientation is often combined with transgender identities in the acronym LGBTQ+, sexual orientation is different to gender identity, which is why they have been separated within this guidance. Only use LGBTQ+ when communications relates to both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sexual orientation is simply about who we are attracted to, or not attracted to, in the case of someone who is asexual.

Examples to use include:

  • Partner / spouse / accompanying person
  • Parent / carer
  • Sexual orientation (not preference)
  • Heterosexual / Straight
  • Gay, gay man, lesbian, openly lesbian, openly gay, bisexual woman, bisexual man
  • People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual

Race

The UK is racially diverse. A person’s appearance does not indicate their nationality or cultural background. A person’s ethnic origin or nationality do not indicate their abilities or their views.

Race should only be used to identify or describe someone when it is necessary and relevant. Where it is appropriate, it should only be used as an adjective rather than a noun.

The terms BAME, BME and any other umbrella description should be avoided where possible, and more specific language should be used as these terms group a large number of very different people together.

Examples to use include:

  • Minority ethic group
  • Underrepresented ethnic groups 
  • Person who is Black, Black British, Asian. Asian British, Jewish, etc
  • BAME – only when necessary and within the context e.g. comparing data and numbers too small to analyse more
  • Mixed race / Mixed heritage
  • Avoid expressions that use black in a negative way (e.g.  black sheep, black list)

Religion or belief 

As a traditionally Christian country, the UK has adopted some language which users may not realise is linked to religion. Using this Christian-centric language may exclude people who respect different religions and beliefs.

It is important to only refer to someone’s religion if it’s relevant to the information we are communicating.

Examples to use include:

  • Religion or belief
  • First name
  • Family name
  • Muslim community, Christian community, etc

Pregnancy and maternity

Families come in all shapes and sizes and our language should reflect this and not use stereotypes. People should use their judgement for which language to use with expectant parents, and it is OK to refer to an expectant mother if you know they identify as a woman.

Whilst many people who are pregnant or have given birth identify as women, there are some non-binary, trans and intersex people who do not identify as a woman and who may become pregnant and give birth. 

Examples to use:

  • Pregnant people 
  • Expectant parents 

Marriage and Civil Partnerships

Marriage and civil partnership are legally recognised unions in the UK to both same sex and heterosexual couples. 

In a marriage, the partners usually (but not always) refer to themselves as husband/husband, husband/wife or wife/wife. In a civil partnership, the partners tend to reference their respective other as a partner, although they could use the term civil partner. Additionally, female titles in the UK, tend to reference a woman’s relationship status i.e. Mrs, Miss and Ms. 

Examples to use include:

  • What is your relationship status? 
  • What is your marital or civil partnership status?
  • Ms instead of Miss or Mrs – unless stated otherwise by the individual 

Forms of address

It is important that the form of address for people is correct. Offering a choice of options for individuals to choose from is considered best practice, although people should have the option to not select an option.

Examples to use:

  • Dr
  • Iman/Rabbi/Rev
  • Lord/Lady
  • Master
  • Miss
  • Mr
  • Mrs
  • Ms
  • Mx
  • Prof
  • Sir/Dame