How to write clearly and inclusively

When we write for the Government of Yukon we must make sure we’re communicating clearly and accurately and that we’re making information about our programs and services easily available. We must also of course make sure we don’t inadvertently exclude or offend anyone.

  • How to write in plain language
  • How to write inclusively
  • Using accurate language about violence

How to write in plain language

10 tips for writing clearly.

  1. Think about who your readers are and organize the information you’re giving them based on their needs, not yours.
  2. Use ordinary, familiar words.
  3. Use a friendly tone. Use “we” and “you.”
  4. Avoid acronyms. Write them in full.
  5. Avoid jargon. If you must use technical words, include a glossary.
  6. Use shorter sentences but also vary the length of your sentences. Aim to have one idea in each sentence then start a new sentence for a new idea.
  7. Use an active voice to keep your writing more lively and make sure it’s obvious who is doing an action.
  8. Use headings to help your readers find what they want.
  9. Get the punctuation right so you don’t confuse your readers.
  10. Test the readability of your writing using an online readability test tool like Hemmingwayapp.

Book an information session or workshop

The Executive Council Office offers plain language information sessions or workshops for government employees. Email ecoinfo@gov.yk.ca to book your session.

What if I can’t avoid using technical language?

If you find you need to use technical or specialized language, include a glossary in your document. This will help people who are new to the subject understand your terminology and ensure that everyone has the same understanding of the terms you use. Put the glossary at the beginning of your document so your readers can easily find it.

How to write inclusively

There are no set rules for writing inclusively. It’s more a matter of being aware that using a word can sometimes have unintended consequences and reduce the perceived value of individuals and groups or of people’s experiences. The consequences of using certain words or phrases can have very real impacts on thoughts, behaviour, culture and organizational priorities.

However, when it comes to gender and other identities, we must also make sure we distinguish between “inclusive” and “neutral” language. For example, when we’re gathering information from Yukoners, it’s important that we include all gender and other identities. We mustn’t avoid collecting information about diverse identities and we mustn’t avoid complex discussions in favour of a more neutral approach. Email ecoinfo@gov.yk.ca for guidance on this.

Deaf

Capitalize Deaf when you’re referring to people who are part of Deaf Culture. For example:

The American Sign Language Interpreting Program will benefit the Deaf community in Yukon.    

Also capitalize “Sign language” and “Sign languages”.

Canadian Association of the Deaf website

First Nations

See Indigenous Peoples.

Gender

LGBTQ2S (based on the Government of Canada’s style)

References:

He and she

Not: he/she, his or her
But: they, their

Names

Not: Christian name
But: first name

Not: surname
But: last name

Objects

Use “it” rather than “she” or “her” to describe ships, nature, nations, cars, engines, gas tanks and so on.

Parallel treatment

Avoid highlighting gender and ethnicity if it’s not relevant.

Have you avoided unnecessary descriptions?

Not: Aboriginal woman Minister of Justice Jane Doe tabled a bill.
But: Minister of Justice Jane Doe tabled a bill.

Use gender neutral words.

Not: actress, fireman, businessman, spokesman, chairman
But: actor, firefighter, businessperson, spokesperson, chair

Not: man a booth
But: staff a booth

The word “ombudsman” is an exception and is accepted by many people as being gender neutral.

The word “grandfathering” is also not a word that can be simply switched for a gender neutral term (“grandparenting”). It has a complicated story with roots in the history of voting rights for people in the US who were formerly slaves.

Here are some tips to help you avoid describing people differently because of their gender or ethnicity.

  • When you don’t know who you’re addressing or don’t know someone’s preferred pronoun or self-identification, use “they” or their job title or role, such as manager, councillor, director, committee member, home owner, parent, reader, teacher, delegate, participant.
  • If you’re using a title (honorific), use Ms. when referring to a woman unless she has indicated a preference for Mrs. or Miss.
  • To check for descriptions that may be sexist, try substituting a man for a woman in the situation or role.
  • Avoid hidden sexism or words that have been traditionally used only to describe specific genders, such as the word “shrill” to describe a woman’s voice rather a man’s, or the phrase “working mom” rather than “working parent.”
  • Beware of stereotypes, such as assuming child care is only delivered by women. This applies to choosing images as well as words.

People with disabilities

Also see Deaf.

Always put the person first, not someone’s condition or whether they use a particular aid or tool. Stress people’s abilities rather than their disabilities and only refer to someone’s disability if it’s relevant.

Avoid phrases such as “the disabled” and “the blind” because they lump people into a type. Also avoid “handicapped” as it is considered offensive by many people.

Use language that respects people with disabilities as active individuals who have control over their lives.

Not: handicapped, afflicted with a disability, confined to a wheelchair, wheel-chair bound
But: an individual living with a disability, people with disabilities, disabled people, people with visual impairments, people with hearing impairments, people who are differently abled, people who are cognitively impaired

If you need specific information, for example if you are organizing an event, you can ask questions such as: “Do you need wheelchair access?” or “Do you have any audio or visual requirements?”

Not: handicapped parking
But: accessible parking

Pronouns

See he and she.

Using accurate language about violence

The Government of Yukon has committed to using clear, accurate and respectful language that reflects the true nature of violence and its impact on people. Staff have worked on a government-wide project to develop vocabulary that will help us do this.

You may find some of the following language to be difficult to read. However, how we communicate about violence matters. When we describe violence in vague, misleading and inaccurate language, this obscures and conceals its criminal nature and severity and the responsibility of perpetrators. It also has a negative impact on the level of support a victim receives from service providers and the community, and influences what happens as someone goes through the justice system.

Violence has many forms – here are some:

  • physical
  • psychological
  • sexualized
  • emotional
  • cultural
  • gender-based
  • workplace
  • family
  • Elder
  • neglect
  • domestic and intimate partner
  • financial

A guide to help you communicate about violence

Have you used clear, accurate and respectful vocabulary?

Avoid:

  • Vague terms that conceal the specific nature and severity of violence. Words such as “incident” tell us nothing about the violence.
  • Vocabulary that mutualizes violence. “Mutualizing” occurs when we use words or descriptions that shift responsibility or blame from the perpetrator to the victim. Violence is unilateral – done against another person – and should be described this way. For example, avoid saying “they fought” when one person hit or beat another person.

Do:

  • Use clear language that accurately describes violence and assigns responsibility to the perpetrator.
  • Respect gender identity and expression and write clearly, consistently and respectfully about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues. Use terminology that is unambiguous, broadly accepted and neutral in tone, as recommended in the Trans Pride Canada’s Style Guide.
Have you avoided unnecessary descriptions?  

Avoid:

  • Inflammatory statements and descriptions with irrelevant information – such as lifestyle choices, clothing, sexual history, citizenship or profession – that perpetuate victim blaming and undermine the responsibility of the perpetrator.
  • Statements that suggest a positive bias towards a perpetrator’s innocence based on details such as their community standing, race, ethnicity, religion or profession.

Do:

  • Ensure the victim’s voice is present but leave out unnecessary information about both the victim and the perpetrator. Use the appropriate level of detail to show the victim’s resistance to violence. Be balanced: too much detail can be gratuitous; too little can weaken the victim’s position.
Have you concealed the violence?

Avoid:

  • Passive voice and vocabulary that shift the responsibility for the violence from the perpetrator to the victim. For example, statements in passive voice such as “the victim alleged she was raped” fail to reflect that the perpetrator was responsible for the rape. A statement such as “the victim reported the man raped her” is more powerful and clear. Violence is committed against the victim; therefore a victim does not, for example, “engage in” or “perform” sexualized acts. “Sex” and “sexual” are terms that should only be used to describe truly sexual acts; that is, acts that are consensual (mutually agreed upon).

Do:

  • Use active voice and language that focus attention on the person committing the crime. Make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence and assign verbs to them. For example, “the man kicked her in the head” is clearer than “the victim was kicked.”
Have you implied racial or cultural reasons for violence?

Avoid:

  • Statements implying that members of particular groups all behave the same way. It is important to use similar terms for similar actions regardless of a perpetrator’s “race” or ethnicity. For example, avoid describing perpetrators from the visible majority as “shooters” or “mentally ill” while calling people from visible minorities “killers,” “terrorists,” or “thugs.”

Do:

  • Ensure that your writing does not perpetuate racism or stereotypical perspectives or imply that violence is normal in certain communities.  
Have you diminished, exaggerated or rationalized violence?

Avoid:

  • Inferences or statements that diminish or exaggerate the occurrence of violence. Violence can occur in all circumstances. For example, violence can occur day and night, with or without alcohol and in public or in the privacy of one’s home. Don’t describe circumstances as either “usual” or “uncommon” or suggest some forms of violence are more serious than others.

Do:

  • Clearly and accurately describe violence. Use statistics and facts to support statements.
Some vocabulary to avoid

Sexual assault

Alternatives: sexualized assault, sexualized violence, violence using sexualized actions, violent sexualized acts, rape.

Why?
“Sexual” is consensual and mutualizing. It places responsibility with both the perpetrator and victim. While the term “sexual assault” is often used, “sexualized assault” more accurately describes unilateral (one-sided), non-consensual actions by a perpetrator and should be used instead. It isn’t possible to consent to sexualized assault or violence.

intercourse sex

Alternatives: rape

Why? The terms “intercourse” and “sex” describe consensual sexual activity. They imply mutual consent, which suggests the victim was a participant in the activity – that something was done “with” them rather than “against” them. Using these terms normalizes and reconstructs criminal behaviours and equates rape to everyday activity.

kiss

Alternatives: forced oral contact, forced mouth on the victim’s mouth (or other body part)

Why? Kissing is a consensual act between two people; it is an act of intimacy or affection. The word “kiss” mutualizes the action and conceals the assault.

alleged, admitted, confessed

Alternatives: reports, reported

Why? Avoid “alleged” because it reinforces the belief that a crime may not have actually occurred. Terms “admitted” and “confessed” imply the victim assumes some responsibility for the violence. “Reports” is more neutral and appropriate.

Be specific and indicate who said what: “Jane Doe reports that…” or “Police say…”

Do not declare a perpetrator’s guilt or innocence until it is proven in the Canadian criminal justice system. Use statements such as “John Doe is reported to be facing charges for…” or “Jane Doe has been charged with…”

unharmed

Alternatives: witnessed, traumatized, harmed

Why? Those who experience violence are never “unharmed.” Physical injuries may not be present; however, violence causes varying levels of traumatic harm. Descriptions should accurately convey physical, mental, emotional and spiritual harm.

Avoid statements such as “children were upstairs and unharmed” because all children are harmed when they hear or see violence.

domestic dispute

Alternatives: intimate partner violence, domestic violence

Why? A “dispute” is a disagreement or argument between two equal parties. “Domestic dispute” minimizes the seriousness of the violence and implies mutual responsibility. It also suggests an isolated incident and may hide patterns of abuse.

incident

Alternatives: attack, sexualized assault, rape

Why? “Incident” is a vague term and does not allow for appropriate social responses. Use clear and accurate language to describe the criminal act.

sex with a minor, child sex tourism, child sex trade, child pornography, child prostitution

Alternatives: rape of a child, international child rape, sexualized violation of a child, rape for profit

Why? Children cannot consent to “sex.” Using the term “rape” is therefore critically important. Children lack the legal capacity to provide consent and therefore no blame or responsibility should be placed with the child.

sexual touching

Alternatives: grabbing body parts, forced touching, forcibly touched

Why? “Sexual” makes the acts seem sensual or pleasurable rather than criminal, harmful and forced upon the victim. Name the body parts to make statement more clear.

bullying, cyberbullying

Alternatives: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, online sexualized exploitation, harassment

Why? Be careful using the term “bullying” because it is vague and imprecise. The term can minimize the severity and criminality of abuse, force, threat, intimidation or aggression. Be specific about the nature of the violent behaviour if you can.

 

Next: Grammar and punctuation →

Last update:
Aug 4, 2017