Inclusive Language Guide

SUNY Cortland is committed to a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. Our community honors this commitment and respects and values differences. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni are expected to be considerate of others, promote collaboration, and demonstrate respect for individuals with regard to ability or disability, age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity/expression, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and other aspects of identity.

The language we use when interacting with each other matters. This guide provides suggestions for using more inclusive and considerate language and serves as a point of reference for the way we communicate. It is not meant to be rigid, exhaustive, or definitive. Rather, the goal is to create a flexible framework for using language that is empowering and respectful. Inclusive language should be used on websites, teaching documents, publicity materials, social media, and all other forms of communication.

In addition to this guide, further support and guidance is available from the Institutional Equity and Inclusion Office. If you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask. Also, make use of online resources such as The Chicago Manual of Style, APA Guidelines to Bias Free Language, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, or The Associated Press Stylebook, and diversity glossaries online such as Diversity and Social Justice: A Glossary of Working Definitions by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

What is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language guidelines give us tools to ensure that we are respectful in the way that we communicate with others. Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect for all people, displays sensitivity to differences, and promotes equitable opportunities.  Inclusive language guidelines are based on decades of research on the impact of stereotyping language. The consequences of non-inclusive language, even if unintentional, can be profound to individuals and communities. Intentional use of inclusive language not only honors the diversity of our campus members, but helps us avoid marginalization, offense, misrepresentation, and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

As we expand our understanding and use of inclusive language, it is important to keep in mind that one person does not represent all members of a particular community. When practiced thoughtfully, inclusive language should acknowledge the experience of an individual as a member of a community, while recognizing that experience, knowledge, and preferred language may vary among community members.

Similarly, because language and identities are continually evolving, we can expect additions or clarification to our guidelines. Please refer back to these guidelines periodically with an open mind and willingness to challenge and change terminology you may be using. If you are aware of any ways that the guidance here does not reflect current best practices or the lived experiences of groups or individuals, please use the feedback form to initiate a conversation about the Inclusive Language Guide. 


Inclusive language is constructed in ways that treat all people with respect and impartiality. Below are general guidelines followed by sections specific to different categories of identity.

  • Look for authentic ways to include, portray, and integrate equity and inclusion issues and diverse populations into stories, written materials, websites, and all other communications.
  • Use personal characteristics such as sex, religion, racial group, disability, sexuality, and age only when necessary.
  • Practice person-first language use (such as person with a disability) when possible, and when you are unsure about an individual’s preferred identity language preferences.
  • Do not use offensive and derogatory terms, including such terms derived from the identity of a specific group (such as Indian giver, gypped, or Jewed), outdated terms (such as crippled), or overly clinical or medicalized terminology (such as homosexual). If you are uncertain of whether a term is derogatory, seek appropriate input.
  • When possible, be as specific as you can to describe people. For example:
    • Chinese rather than Asian when the person is of Chinese descent.
    • Guatemalan instead of Hispanic when a person is of Guatemalan descent.
    • When in doubt, ask a person how they would like to be identified, which includes what pronouns they prefer. This is best accomplished one-to-one or via written communication such as emailing your class to ask about pronouns.
  • Make room for a person’s complex identity and the complexity of different communities. For example:
    • A veteran or a person who uses a wheelchair may also be part of the LGBTQ+ communities.
    • Muslims, Jews, and other religious community members may be from many different races, ethnicities, or geographic origins.
  • People with an underrepresented identity sometimes use terms to refer to themselves that could be controversial or hurtful. As a general rule, people who do not claim the identity themselves should not use these terms. For example:
    • “Moe’s is the last dyke bar in the city,” should only be said by someone who self-identifies as a lesbian or dyke, which—for some—is a preferred term to express their identity.

Race, Ethnicity and Nationality

Although oftentimes conflated, race, ethnicity, and nationality are three different categories of identity. Race refers to the socially constructed grouping of people based on physical characteristics, while ethnicity refers to the shared culture of a group, including practices, beliefs, ancestry, and language. Nationality refers to being a citizen of a nation by birth or naturalization. Individuals may identify more strongly by race, ethnicity, or nationality, and salient identities among individuals who share race, ethnicity or nationalism can vary.  

  • Avoid generalizations and assumptions based in race or ethnicity.
  • Do not assume that a person's appearance defines their nationality or cultural background.
  • Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, and race. For example: White or European American, Latinx, Black or African American, Asian, Filipino, Cherokee, etc.
  • Avoid references that draw undue attention to ethnic or racial backgrounds. When references are being used, learn the most appropriate terminology and use the term preferred by the person or group being referred to.
  • Avoid vocabulary that extends negative racial, cultural, or ethnic connotations and avoid language that portrays groups of people as othered, foreign, inferior, bad, criminal, or less valued than others.
  • Individuals who are undocumented come from a variety of countries and ethnic groups. Although their immigration status may be illegal, the people themselves are not. Moreover, there may be a mix of documented and undocumented individuals in the same family.
  • Remember that "person of color" and "immigrant" are not synonymous.
  • Be mindful of debates and deliberate differences in language choices within and among communities. Some people may identify as "Latine," but often people prefer alternative titles, including Latino, Latina, Latinx, or even Hispanic, a category which remains on many government forms, including the United States Census.
  • Avoid inappropriate and casual uses of terms from specific cultural, ethnic, or religious practices. For example, powwows and spirit animals are sacred aspects of some Indigenous North American communities and should only be used when directly referencing these cultural and religious items. 
  • While racial terms change over time, avoid using outdated terms like “Negro” or “colored person.”
  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) is intended to center the experiences of Black and Indigenous people with the United States, while making a distinction between these two groups and other people of color.

Gender, Sex and Sexuality

The enduring bias in society against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people and women makes many people feel invisible, marginalized and inferior to other people. This bias means that these groups often experience direct and/or indirect discrimination through the language of others.

  • Avoid references to a person’s gender except where it is pertinent to the discussion. This often involves seeking gender neutrality when using terms and pronouns. English provides many options for ensuring that language usage is both unambiguous and inclusive. These options include:
    • Avoiding patronizing expressions, e.g., instead of the girls in the office, use the administrative staff or the office staff.
    • Using alternatives for he and his as generic pronouns, including changing word order, e.g., instead of “The employee may exercise his right to a review” try ”Employees may exercise their right to a review.”’
  • Avoid using he as a universal pronoun along with guys and man/mankind; likewise, avoid using binary alternatives such as he/she, he or she, or (s)he or addressing a crowd with gendered binaries such as ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Instead, refer to the group using examples such as folks or everyone.
  • Respect an individual’s chosen pronoun usage, or lack thereof. If the gender of the individual is not known, use the gender-inclusive pronouns they/theirs. (Note: while the singular they is the most common nonbinary pronoun, there are others, including but not limited to ey / em / eirs and ze / hir / hirs.)
  • Remember that pronouns and names change. Respect these changes.
  • Honorific titles like Mrs., Ms., Miss, and Mr. assume gender and marital status. If it is appropriate to use a title, ask the individual you are referring to how they like to be addressed.
  • Be consistent when referring to individuals of any gender. If one is referred to by first or last name, profession, title (i.e. Doctor), others should be referred to in the same manner.
  • Avoid creating invisibility. LGBTI people are often rendered invisible in conversation, in public discourse, and in cultural and media representation. Across all media, heterosexual orientation tends to be represented as better, more morally correct, or as the only sexual orientation. Language that reinforces the assumption that all personal relationships are heterosexual denies the reality of same-sex relationships. One way to avoid reinforcing this invisibility is to use spouse or partner instead of husband or wife, and boyfriend or girlfriend if you do not know the sexual orientation or marital status of the people about whom or to whom you are speaking.
  • Avoid expressions that disparage or trivialize the diverse sexual experiences and desires of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, for example, “That’s so gay” or “All she/he needs is to find the right man/woman.”
  • Also avoid stereotyping that could be considered positive but still places unfair expectation and limits on others. For example, “gay people are generally more creative and open-minded.”

Religion, Spirituality and Atheism

Belief plays an important role in individual or community identity and continues to be the cause of persecution of groups around the world. Implicit bias, stereotyping, and preference may all work to create exclusionary settings for groups or individuals of belief. Misunderstandings about the distinction between religious and ethnic identities can be a source of marginalization; for example, wrongly assuming that all Arabs are Muslim, or all Muslims are Arab. In fact, many nationalities and ethnicities include various religious practices and traditions.

  • Weigh the use of general or specific terms when referencing places of worship, events, or holidays, so as not to exclude any group or perspective, but be specific when the instance requires. For example:
    • When discussing religious buildings or institutions generally, use a general term such as place of worship or house of prayer; if a religion is specified, use the particular term (such as mosque, synagogue, church, chapel, and so forth).
    • When discussing the calendar or date ranges, reference the season of the year (e.g., winter) rather than a specific holiday; if a religious holiday is specified, use the particular term (such as Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, or Eid al-Fitr).

Socioeconomic Status (SES)

Another way that discrimination can occur through language is in relation to perceived or actual economic status (usually poverty) and, linked to this, geolocation (usually rural or suburban). People are often assigned particular characteristics (almost always negatively) on the basis of factors such as where they live, how they speak, their cultural preferences, perceived levels of income and access to financial resources, and physical appearance. 

  • Only refer to location and relative economic circumstances where this is relevant to the discussion
  • Avoid negative terms relating to location or status, such as ghettos, hillbillies or hicks.
  • Treat all people, regardless of their perceived or actual economic circumstances or where they live, with respect, fairness, and dignity.
  • Avoid language that focuses on blaming the individual or on individual deficits; instead, focus on what people have, not what they lack.
  • Use specific, person-first language such as mothers who receive TANF benefits rather than welfare mothers (TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
  • When discussing people without a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence, use language like people experiencing homelessness, people who are homeless, people in emergency shelters, or people in transitional housing, rather than calling people the homeless.
  • Do not treat race and class synonymously. Terms such as “low-income” and “poor” have historically served as implicit descriptors for racial and/or ethnic minority people. Avoid this conflation.

Disability and Health

 A disability is not an individual’s limitation, rather disability occurs when there is a mismatch between an individual characteristic and the environment. For example, a dyslexic person is disabled by a culture that relies on the printed word for communication. A dyslexic person is not disabled by an oral culture. Discriminatory language about people with a disability typically emphasizes the disability rather than the person, or stereotypes people with a disability as victims or suffering. Historically common terms, like the blind, or the disabled, are examples of depersonalization and inappropriate collective references by assuming sameness within the group.

  • Many prefer the use of person-first language: person with a disability, woman with multiple sclerosis, a child who has an intellectual disability, or a man who uses a wheelchair. This puts the focus on individuals as humans first, not their functional limitations and avoids dehumanization.
  • Others prefer to use identity-first language as a way to signal their disability pride. Thus, people who value their autism as an inseparable and important part of who they are might proudly say, “I am autistic.” Similarly, some people with disabilities regard their condition as a neutral descriptor (a blind man as similar to a tall man). Amputee is more often used than a person with an amputation.
  • Avoid terms and portrayals that paint people with disabilities as special or heroic simply for having a disability. While special is used in the names of some educational programs and organizations, the use of special needs is offensive to many adults with disabilities, who want to be treated like everyone else in their community. Special also implies a paternalistic need to be taken care of, which is frequently not true. Even though the public may find such portrayals inspirational, these stereotypes raise false expectations for people with disabilities.
  • Respect the person. If you maintain the dignity and integrity of each individual, there is no need to panic about being politically correct. When appropriate, you may ask people how they prefer to be described.
  • Do not equate disability with illness. People with disabilities are not inherently unhealthy. Do not refer to people with disabilities as patients unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion, or if they are referenced in the context of a clinical setting.
  • Avoid derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health, for example, paranoid, mad, crazy, or psycho. Also, it is not appropriate or accurate to describe a conflicting approach to an issue as schizophrenic or as bi-polar. This shows a misunderstanding of what these diagnoses are and underplays the impact of these mental illnesses.


Inclusive language should be sensitive to the entire age range. Terms such as older people, youth, and young people are largely neutral in their connotation. Terms that have become institutionalized over a significant amount of time – such as retirees and senior citizens– are relatively safe.

  • Only use the term kids, girls, boys to refer to people under the age of 18.
  • Avoid stereotyping or connotations that a particular age group is more or less able or has stereotypical characteristics by virtue of chronological age alone. Avoid using expressions such as a young and vibrant team or a mature workforce. Instead, try an effective and vibrant team or an experienced workforce.
  • Do not use offensive or derogatory language that suggests older people are out-of-touch, unable to learn new things, or less agreeable than younger persons. Avoid descriptions of people as fossils, deadwood, and dinosaurs.

Veteran Status

Discriminatory language referring to veteran status can occur in many ways, and typically arises due to stereotypes that neglect intersectional identities of veterans. For instance, questioning veteran status based on gender supports the stereotype that being a member of the military is a role for men, or conflicts with other social roles such as parenthood. Avoid generalizing the experience of veterans, or assuming the level of professional development or education experience earned during military service.


There is no place in our community for insensitive, inaccurate or derogatory language stereotypes that are based on factors such as ability / disability, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race or cultural background. Used with care and sensitivity, language can play a powerful role in minimizing conflict and building connections between individuals and groups. In this way, it can play an important part in building a community in which all people are valued and feel included.

Feedback form Bias reporting

Last updated 11/18/2021