Inclusive writing raises many questions, debates and, worse, ire—not just from linguists. Why all the fuss? Firstly, because too many associate inclusive writing with the sole notion of non-gendered or “feminized” writing. But inclusive writing, which bears witness to our human evolution, has a much broader target.
Inclusive writing aims, first and foremost, to include all the people who make up our world. This approach, therefore, applies to the broad spectrum of diversity. Indeed, gender diversity begins with giving the feminine its rightful place in a world populated equally by women and men. But writing more inclusively also aims to recognize and respect cultural, ethnic, generational, and physical/mental differences, among others.
Masculine no longer prevails over feminine
Let’s first tackle the thorny issue of “masculine vs. feminine,” dominant in French, where grammar dictates that “the masculine takes precedence over the feminine.” This question, which irritates purists and the Académie française to no end, calls into question a rule established in the 17th century.
In those antiquated times, the French introduced this rule “to counter the growing influence of women on the intellectual scene.” 1 Nearly 400 years later, this “rule” falters in the face of the strong winds of change toward a more gender-equitable world, raising passions on all sides. Many raise their voices to eradicate the now obsolete rule. In 2017, over 300 teachers in France signed a declaration pledging to stop using the aforementioned rule to “overthrow grammatical patriarchy” and move towards less sexist language.
English follows suit
French speakers are not alone in the quest for equity. The English language is increasingly shedding words and expressions that prioritize the masculine gender. “Firemen” are becoming “firefighters” and “policemen,” “police officers.” Even in French, masculine expressions are being consigned to the archives of obsolescence. Among them, “droits de l’homme” (which even went so far as to capitalize the “h”) has become “droits de la personne” (no caps) to include all genders without discrimination. It is worth noting that the English language had it right from the start by referring to Human Rights (all caps).
Precision and inclusion
Many people refer to this writing approach as “feminization,” which seems particularly unfair, firstly because it’s not about feminizing. Rather, it’s about including the feminine in several words, expressions and concepts that refer to the feminine and masculine genders. So, it is more about precision to better reflect reality.
However, reality does not stop at gender binarity and includes non-binary people. Language adapts to accommodate this reality by adding—or recycling—pronouns. When the context calls for it, we can use the pronoun “ze” or the singular “they.” Not only is the latter used to designate a person whose gender is neither mentioned nor known (i.e., not only non-binary), but the singular “they” is not new. According to the
Oxford English Dictionary, it was first seen in writing in 1375. So, we’re talking about linguistic upcycling rather than neologism.
Include beyond genders
Inclusive language goes far beyond gender diversity to address ethnic and cultural diversity, among other differences. How do we respectfully address people of colour or LGBTQ+ communities? What words or comments should we avoid when communicating with Indigenous Peoples? What should we consider when talking to partners from different backgrounds and cultures?
Inclusive language is all that. Whether or not we agree with certain practices, we must acknowledge the importance of such an approach in a world where differences are not the exception but the actual rule. The changes these differences entail may be uncomfortable for some or frightening to others, but they are essential in a world in constant evolution.
We must act now to build a better world that embraces everyone who makes it up. And what could be simpler than to start right now with our pens and keyboards?
Those wishing to deepen their knowledge of inclusive writing will find our Inclusive Writing Workshop fascinating, practical and fun!
1 Éliane Viennot, Non le masculin ne l’emporte pas sur le féminin! Petite histoire des résistances de la langue française, Éditions iXe, Donnemarie-Dontilly, 2014 – Free