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April 16, 2015

Senate Matters: Implementing inclusive language

Implementing inclusive language

Creating a welcoming campus environment for people of all backgrounds is an important goal for our community. One important kind of diversity that should not be overlooked is linguistic diversity. This term includes welcoming speakers of all language varieties or dialects, and using language that is considerate of identities different from one’s own.

Being addressed with a gender term that you don’t identify with can hurt. Members of our community who feel a gender that doesn’t match other gender signals (dress, name, voice) experience these feelings every day when language is used about them that doesn’t match their gender identity.

The gender, sexuality and women’s studies (GSWS) program has been developing recommendations for helping to create a climate of gender inclusivity, especially of transgender or genderqueer members of our community.

We all have a part in this. GSWS suggests that members of the Pitt community use language that allows for multiple gender identities in addition to masculine and feminine, and ask individuals — students especially — to express how they wish to be referred to or addressed. These recommendations — primarily addressing the classroom, syllabi and class writing — suggest that we should assume there are individuals who wish to be referred to with language that does not categorize them as a man or a woman. Find out someone’s preference, and then follow it. The GSWS guidelines suggest a number of strategies; the primary one is to simply ask people about preferences in nonthreatening ways (for example, ask for students’ “preferred pronoun” on first-day questionnaires). There are many possible gender-neutral strategies, including using new pronouns such a ze as well as more conventional strategies such as using the plural, which is unmarked for gender in English (they rather than she/he). Here are some examples with ze:

ze (subject):

Ze loves coffee./They love coffee.

zim/them (object):

Fabius asked zim to meet them in the library./Fabius asked them to meet them in the library.

Zir/their (possessive):

I read zir book in my composition class./I read their book in my composition class.


Ze taught zirself to play the guitar./They taught themselves to play the guitar.

As a linguist who also teaches a course in language and gender, I’ve heard a number of objections to these ideas. Here are some of those arguments and their counter-arguments.

• It’s not correct. “Correct” is a social and ideological construction that only became conceivable, especially for English, in the 17th century. “Correctness” is a social evaluation mechanism to know who has learned the language of a particular group (class, race, etc.).

• It interferes with the natural course of language. Actually, English has been losing gender marking for centuries. In the specific case of using plural for singular generic, this state of affairs is actually the way it was before grammarians introduced the idea of making the masculine pronoun the default generic form.

• The lack of agreement doesn’t make sense (for their/them/they singular). Neither does marking gender when it doesn’t describe the person described. Also, it works fine for you (singular)/you (plural).

• People will not adopt new usages; such shifts need to be “organic.” That’s been claimed about lots of proposed language planning efforts. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and we know a fair amount about what leads to success. One thing we know is that the more institutional (especially education and media) support such proposals have, the more people come to accept them.

• We should wait until social mores/ideas/ideologies catch up before changing the language to reflect that reality. When exactly is that, and how do we know the time has arrived? More forcefully, language is a social practice, and there is a mutually informing and reinforcing relationship between language and thought/ideology. Changing the language is part of making the world a more equitable place for people who don’t feel they fit into the gender binary.

• It’s an imposition on free speech/it’s just political correctness/you can’t tell me how to talk! No one is ordering you to use this language. However, some people are asking you to be considerate of their wishes and sensibilities. In short, it’s merely politeness, since politeness is about consideration for other people.

For more on this subject, see: “Gender-inclusive Guidelines,” GSWS (; “Gender Pronouns Guide,” University of Wisconsin-Madison LGBT Campus Center (, and “10 Things You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns” (

Scott F. Kiesling is an associate professor of linguistics and a member of the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program steering committee.