Using inclusive and respectful language

Use inclusive language, and avoid language that is prejudicial and stereotypes or excludes sections of the community. Inclusive language gives all members of the community a place in your writing and avoids alienating your reader. This important issue is also discussed in Engaging.

In checking your writing for inclusivity, consider:

  • Relevance. Does your writing avoid making assumptions about a person based on irrelevant personal characteristics or conditions? Does your writing take care not to mention details about a person that are not relevant in the context?
  • Respect. Have you taken care with the terms you use to ensure that they are respectful and in line with the preferences of the people to whom you are referring? Does your language emphasise the person, rather than irrelevant personal characteristics or conditions?

In particular, think about your language and your assumptions around:

Tip. Unless a person’s gender, nationality or ethnic status, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other personal attribute is important to the topic being discussed, do not mention it.


The English language has a strong masculine bias. Writers should try to ensure that their language is inclusive – for example, chair or chairperson instead of chairman. Writers should also constantly be on guard for inappropriate assumptions about gender.

Do not mention gender in relation to a particular role or position:

The Australian Chief Medical Officer, who is a woman, was interviewed by ABC television.

Unless the interview is about women’s issues, it is irrelevant whether the Chief Medical Officer is a woman or a man. Examples of this type of discrimination are surprisingly common and must be avoided.

Some ways to eliminate a gender bias from writing are:

  • avoid stereotyping

Dr Joan Smith, an analytical chemist from Melbourne, has been appointed as director of the board.
Dr Joan Smith, a Melbourne mother of 3, has been appointed as director of the board.

  • use words such as staff or operate instead of man as a verb

staff the laboratory     operate the equipment

  • use words such as person or people rather than man

People cannot live without water.
Man cannot live without water.

Mr Smith was the chair.   or   Mr Smith was the chairperson.
Mr Smith was the chairman.

  • rewrite sentences in the plural form

If trainees continue to show competence, they may be promoted to the position of water supervisor.
If the trainee continues to show competence, he may be promoted to the position of water supervisor.

If the trainee continues to show competence, they may be promoted.

The department is looking to appoint a person in their mid-twenties.

The mission statement should encompass everyone’s perception of their role.

  • eliminate the pronoun

An analytical chemist often has difficulty interpreting ambiguous data. Experiments can give unexpected results, which even an experienced scientist [not he] may not be able to fully explain.

  • rephrase the sentence

The trainee who continues to show competence after independent project work may be promoted to the position.
If, after independent project work, the trainee continues to show competence, he may be promoted to the position.

  • use terms such as men and womenmale and femaleladies and gentlemen, and boys and girls in parallel ways

Samples were obtained from 15 students: 10 men and 5 women.
Samples were obtained from 15 students: 10 men and 5 girls.

The term lady is used as a courtesy title (Lady Smith) and as a polite form of address for women in general in phrases such as ladies and gentlemen. However, the association of lady with stereotypical roles for women means that woman is now the preferred term for a female adult:

I saw a woman walking down the street.
I saw a lady walking down the street.

Terms such as cleaning lady are particularly patronising and must be replaced with cleaner or similar. Similarly, avoid expressions such as She saw the lady doctor when She saw the doctor would suffice, or My doctor is a woman, unless it is important to convey this information.

Return to top

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Do not mention sexual orientation or gender identity when it is not relevant. Portray people as individuals, rather than defining them by their sexual orientation or gender identity.

LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) or LGBTIQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) are broadly accepted terms that express a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities.

Return to top

Nationality, religion and ethnic groups

Do not mention nationality, ethnicity or religion when it is not relevant. Do not say:

We gave the scholarship to our top performer, who is from India.

The proprietor of the smallgoods manufacturing company, who is Italian, was prosecuted for violating the Food Standards Code.

The Chief Scientific Officer, who is a Muslim, was interviewed by ABC television.

However, there may be some cases where these details are relevant to the story:

The senator, who is a conservative Christian, argued against changes to the marriage laws.

When referring to religious or ethnic groups, avoid stereotypes and derogatory terms, and never include any insensitive or judgmental associations.

Muslim (not Moslem) is the spelling preferred by English-speaking followers of Islam.

Avoid using the terms migrant or immigrant unless referring to someone who has very recently arrived in Australia; do not use these terms to refer to residents or citizens from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Return to top

Socioeconomic status and age

The same principles apply for socioeconomic groups as for ethnic groups. Use extreme care to avoid implying any false associations or judgments.

Also, take care when referring to different age groups. Use descriptive terms such as older people or senior citizens, rather than reductive labels such as the old or the aged. Similarly, use young person rather than juvenile. As with other examples, avoid all types of stereotyping.

Return to top

People with disabilities or conditions

When referring to people with disabilities or particular conditions, use terms that emphasise the person first, rather than the person’s disability or condition:

people with disabilities   not   the disabled   or   the handicapped

person with epilepsy   not   an epileptic

people who inject drugs   not   injecting drug users

person living with cancer   or   person affected by cancer   not   a cancer sufferer   or   a cancer victim

Do not mention the disability or condition in contexts where it is not relevant. Wherever possible, portray people as individuals with qualities that override any physical or medical diagnosis.

Further advice on terminology for individuals with:

Also refer to the Disability language A–Z guide from the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care.

Return to top

Developed versus developing countries

When referring to countries, use the terms developing countries and developed countries, or low-, middle- and high-income countries. Do not use underdeveloped countries or terms that should have a geographical meaning only, such as the Westwesternisednorth or south.

The term Third World was coined for developing countries because they are typically in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, and therefore independent of either the western or eastern blocs. This term, and the corresponding First World, are best avoided because they are judgmental and not internationally accepted.

Return to top

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Reference to Australia’s First Peoples needs careful and respectful consideration. Australia is home to 2 groups of Indigenous peoples: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Within each group are many nations with different preferences. It is best practice to check with the people to find out what their preferred term is.

The collective term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons or peoples is recommended by several resources as an inclusive term. Indigenous Australians is a term that is intended to be inclusive, but is not always well liked by Indigenous people themselves and should therefore be used with caution.

When used to refer to the peoples of Australia, AboriginalTorres Strait Islander and Indigenous should all have initial capitals. Do not use initial capitals for indigenous when referring to indigenous peoples from other countries. Do not use the acronyms ATSI or TSI to refer to people.

It is preferable to talk about Aboriginal people rather than Aborigines and avoid the Aboriginesour Aborigines or our Islanders, which are patronising. Use non-Indigenous Australians to describe Australians who are not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, or all Australians to include everybody.

The terms First Peoples and First Nations are used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – for instance, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples or the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network. Note that the term First Nations is used for indigenous people in North America and therefore should be used with caution if there is a chance of confusion. First Peoples is a safer term.

Wherever possible, use specific nationality names:

Ngunnawal     Wiradjuri     Yorta Yorta     Warlpiri

Many Torres Strait Islander people prefer to use the name of their island to identify themselves to outsiders – for example, Saibai man or Meriam (Murray Islander).

There are also local terms for Aboriginal people from different parts of Australia:

Koori [across southeastern Australia]     Murri [across much of south and central Queensland]     Nunga [in southern South Australia]     Noongar [also Nyoongar, Nyungar; around Perth]     Yolngu [in Arnhem Land]     Anangu [in central Australia]     Palawa [in Tasmania]

Take great care with these terms. It is not appropriate to assume that Koori, widely accepted in the southeast of the country, can be used to describe someone in Broome or Darwin. And you would not automatically call an Aboriginal person living in Queensland a Murri if the community they relate to comes from elsewhere.

People might also call themselves saltwater people if they live on the coast, or freshwater, desert or spinifex people if they live on that country. Many people identify themselves by their language group – for example, Gurindji man or Gubbi woman.

Aboriginal people use a variety of terms to describe themselves, such as mob, community and nation, and they may talk about their country as their homelands, or refer to living on Country. Generally, a word like mob would only be used by non-Indigenous Australians if they knew, and lived or worked among, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. It is usually fine for anyone to use the terms community and nation. However, First Nations Australians are very culturally varied, so it is best not to make assumptions; if in doubt, ask.

Take care with terms such as tribe and clan. Tribe tends to have a negative connotation in Australia, although the term has been used by some Aboriginal groups in arguing their land claims. Likewise, some groups – for example, the Gumatj people in the Northern Territory – talk about clans in relationship to themselves.

Some Indigenous people describe themselves with pride as black, a term that was especially prevalent in the 1970s black rights movement, but it can be understood as a term of abuse when used by non-Aboriginal people. Terms such as primitive, native and prehistoric – labels used by some academic disciplines (more so in other countries) – are pejorative when used in Australia.

Best practice is always to find out what individuals prefer to be called, rather than making assumptions.

Aboriginal Australia 

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies map of Aboriginal Australia is a good place to learn about the diversity of Aboriginal nations, languages and social groups.

This section is based on AIATSIS (2015). Guidelines for the ethical publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and research from those communities, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

See Different approaches to history and historical evidence for more suggestions for writing about indigenous peoples and cultures.

Return to top

User login

... or purchase now

An individual subscription is only A$60 per year

Group and student discounts may apply

Australian manual of scientific style Start communicating effectively