Guide for Inclusive Language at Radboud University

Radboud University's ambition is to promote a safe, inclusive academic community that embraces and promotes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI plan, 2022). Language is key to inclusion: by using certain words, we can make everyone feel more included. This guide serves as a tool to become aware of the impact language can have and how to use inclusive language, so that we do not exclude anyone or use harmful stereotypes. 

An image depicting our intersectional identities

Starting points  

  • This image shows the many facets of diversity and our intersectional identities. Try to consider these varied perspectives when you write.  

  • Be aware that the language you use can seem neutral to you, but may have a unintended (negative) effect on a reader. Always ask yourself whether your words can offend, stereotype or exclude your reader. 


1. Aim for gender-inclusive language 


a. Use gender-neutral words to address people   

When we address people with e.g. ‘Sir/Madam’ or ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, we exclude non-binary and genderqueer people. We can use neutral forms of address instead, such as ‘Dear reader’ or ‘Dear students’. Other neutral words include: child, partner, user, resident, person, colleague, people.  

Many words in English are divided into masculine and feminine forms, like 'father' or 'mother', ‘brother’ or ‘sister’, ‘guys’, ‘husband’ or ‘girlfriend’. For this, you can use the neutral alternatives 'parent', ‘sibling’, ‘friends’ or ‘partner’.  

b. Avoid masculine and/or feminine generic pronouns and he/she

'We speak of too much work pressure when it affects a professor’s functioning in his work or private situation'. This sentence reinforces the stereotype that professors are male due to the masculine generic pronoun ‘his’. Note that opting for ‘he/she’ excludes non-binary and genderqueer people. You can use the plural pronoun they/them/their in English as a neutral pronoun, even when you refer to a single person: 'We speak of too much work pressure when it affects a professor’s functioning in their work or private situation'. Another solution is using plural (‘professors’) instead of singular nouns. 

c. Use neutral words instead of masculine/feminine forms where possible 

Many English words and expressions refer to the masculine gender, like ‘mankind’, ‘to man up’ and ‘man-made’. These words reinforce male bias and maintain masculine stereotypes. Many words have neutral synonyms, like ‘humankind’, ‘to get it together’ and ‘artificial’.  

Especially words for professions and jobs tend to have male forms, like ‘ombudsman’, ‘policeman’, ‘spokesman’ or ‘chairman’, even though these professions are often practiced by all kinds of people. Here too, neutral alternatives can be used, like ‘ombuds official’ or ‘chair’. Terms such as ‘director’, ‘manager’ are now considered neutral, as are ‘supervisor’ and ‘team leader’.   

In some cases, two words for a job or profession exist: a neutral/male form and a female form, e.g. ‘actor’ / ‘actress’ and ‘alumnus’/’alumna’. The neutral form is recommended. The more we use neutral forms, the less we will associate it with a certain gender. In time, this promotes gender-inclusive language. When it is not clear from the context to which gender the ‘neutral’ form refers, many readers tend to have a male bias. If you want to avoid this, you can make the gender clear from the context (if known), or avoid the gendered word altogether by e.g. using plural (‘alumni’). 

2. Address people correctly 

Everyone likes to be addressed appropriately. However, you cannot tell how to correctly identify a person’s gender from their name or appearance. If you don’t know and don’t want to ask, use neutral forms of address such as ‘Dear colleague’ and use neutral pronouns ‘they/them/their’. If you know their first name, use e.g. ‘Dear Gijs Jansen’ instead of ‘Dear Mr. Jansen’. Refrain from using gendered pronouns, such as Mr., Mrs., Ms. and Miss.

Some people indicate their preferred pronouns in their e-mail signature or LinkedIn. We encourage you to do this as well to promote the use of pronouns.

Always ask yourself if it is necessary to ask for gender details, for example when using forms. In most cases, this information is not required and it is better to not ask for it from a privacy standpoint. If you do need to collect this information, include an open option and a 'prefer not to disclose' option.

3. Do not emphasize irrelevant aspects of someone’s identity 

If not necessary, don’t emphasize someone's gender expression, colour, religion, sexual orientation, generation/age, mental or physical abilities, level of education or socio-economic status. In the sentence "The black professor addressed the differences between...", the fact that the professor is black is irrelevant. When you do add something about someone’s identity, you can check whether this is inclusive by turning it around: would you also write about ‘the white professor’?  

4. Name a person, not their identity

If it is relevant to mention an aspect of someone’s identity, aim to use person-first and not identity-first language. The latter usually involves nouns to describe a person, which has been found to reinforce stereotypes and portrays one aspect of someone’s identity as their only defining characteristic. For example:

Instead of: You can use:
A transgender A trans woman/man/person
A queer A queer person
A disabled person A person with a disability 
A victim of… Person who has experienced…
Wheelchair-bound Person who uses a wheelchair
An epileptic A person with epilepsy

When speaking about disability, avoid using phrases that suggest that the person in question is a victim, e.g., ‘afflicted by’, ‘victim of’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’. Moreover, don’t use euphemisms like ‘differently-abled’, or ‘specially-abled’ or commonly used these days, ‘challenged’. 

5. Avoid ‘othering’ 

‘Employees from other cultures bring many benefits to an organisation’ is an example of ‘othering’. A whole group of people is described as ‘the other’, and it is unclear what they are being compared to (a culture other than?). ‘Othering’ usually contains normativity, e.g. ‘people with another sexual orientation’ implies that heterosexuality is the norm, and ‘non-Western’ implies that ‘Western’ countries are the norm. Be aware of othering in your language use and ask yourself whether you can use a more accurate, inclusive description. 

6. Avoid stereotyping  

Not all Dutch people are direct and not all Surinamese people have a good sense of rhythm. Women do not always want children. Not all heterosexual men like football. Living conditions and stages of life are also different for everyone. Not everyone is in a relationship, not every relationship consists of a man and a woman, not everyone is married or lives together, and not every couple has children. Many forms and situations are possible. More importantly, by using these stereotypes, we maintain them and marginalized groups will continue to experience disadvantages of persistent stereotypes. That is why it is recommended to avoid stereotyping in your language.  

7. Avoid asymmetrical language 

Asymmetrical language is language that labels the same information differently for different people. For example, when describing a parent that has a job and a child, a woman may be called a ‘working mother’ while a father is a ‘caring father’. These asymmetrical labels maintain the stereotype that women care for children while men have a career. Always turn it around: would you say ‘caring mother’ and ‘working father’?

8. Use a variety of images  

Avoid the use of stereotypical images. Try to use neutral or diverse images, so that as many people as  possible recognize themselves, feel welcome and are addressed. For example, don't always use a family with a father, mother and two children; also choose e.g. gay or lesbian couples, people of colour, people of different ages and people with disabilities.

9. Offer information in an accessible way and, where possible, in various forms  

People take in information in different ways – text may not always be the best way to communicate. If possible, combine text with images, videos and speech. Make sure your message is accessible to everyone, including persons with dyslexia, hearing impairments and visual impairments. You can add subtitles (captions and translations) to videos, descriptions (‘alt-text’) to images, and transcripts to audio files. When using visuals, check whether the colours are sufficiently contrastive. This website contains more guidelines.  

10. Be aware of complex language

Always consider who will read your text and make a conscious choice about how you formulate things. Adjust the complexity of the language to the language level and needs of your audience.  

Sometimes it can be good to use richer and more complex language. For academic communication in journals, business reports, etc. higher levels are expected and should be used. But if you want to reach a wider audience, avoid long complex sentences with difficult words or specialist language. Language level B1 (CEFR) is a good guideline for most languages - most of the population understands texts at that level and prefers it to reading an unnecessarily complex text. 


Please note that language and society are ever-changing. Therefore, these guidelines are not cast in stone. We learn and adjust as we go along. If you have any suggestions or improvements, please let us know via communicatie [at] (communicatie[at]ru[dot]nl)

These guidelines were created by Radboud in’to Languages in cooperation with Radboud University’s department of Corporate Communication and the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Office.