Yes, you can be gender-inclusive and use plain language!

Posted on February 19, 2024

Early in my career, I taught in an adult literacy centre. I still remember one encounter that particularly struck me: one with an elderly, somewhat shy man. On his first visit to the centre, he whispered to me that he hadn't learned to read and write when he was young.

I showed him letters on a piece of cardstock, and he was able to name them. I showed him combinations of letters, and he could pronounce them. I asked him to read words and then short sentences, and he succeeded. “You can read!” I said proudly. He paused, smiled, and replied, “Maybe… but I don't understand.”

This man is far from the only one in this situation: 48% of adults in Canada—that’s almost half the population—have a reading level no higher than Grade 8, which corresponds to the second year of high school in Quebec.

Think about it: when our message is too complicated, it’s difficult for nearly half our population to understand what we’re trying to say. We exclude a very large segment of society, and our democracy suffers as a result.

Similarly, the words and phrases we choose can create a sense of exclusion when it comes to gender.

For example, as the mother of a transgender teenager, I see the extent to which the use of the pronoun “she” brings my daughter profound joy every day, the feeling that she can be herself.

My amazing daughter was, and continues to be, the inspiration behind my collaboration with the Interdepartmental Working Group on Inclusive Writing, which I co-chaired. The collaborative efforts of the Working Group, which included over 35 federal, provincial and territorial departments and organizations, culminated in the creation of the Guidelines for Inclusive Writing in the fall of 2022.

Recently, I was fortunate to meet Chris Coulter, Senior Communications Advisor at Transport Canada, and Asha St-Hilaire, Senior Strategic Communications Advisor at Shared Services Canada. Chris and Asha are active members of the Plain Language Community of Practice. Together, we worked to dispel a myth! Yes, you can be gender-inclusive and apply plain language principles in your writing. And here are five tips to help you do just that!

1. Use common words, not jargon

Don’t you just love it when presenters use acronyms and technical words that hardly anyone understands? Frustrating, right? Imagine what it might be like for the general population reading, watching, or listening to overly complicated information. Enough said!

However, when it comes to gender identities, it might be difficult to avoid abbreviations such as “2SLGBTQIA+” or new words. While gender diversity is not new, the expression of these diverse identities is still in its early stages. New words and acronyms have emerged to name these identities, and they’ll likely continue to evolve over time.

Why not use the opportunity to educate people by defining acronyms and explaining these new words? The word “Internet” didn’t exist when I started my career. Today, we all know its meaning and use it daily. The more we talk about gender identities, using the right words, the more we become accustomed to them. As we become more and more used to seeing, hearing, and using these words, the more our understanding of them grows.

2. Address your reader directly

Addressing the reader is an effective plain language and gender-inclusive technique we often use in government communications. “You” is a pronoun that includes all genders and, in most cases, reduces the length of your sentences. It helps the audience see themselves in the text and relate to what you’re saying. Here’s a quick example: instead of writing “The tenant must keep his apartment clean and tidy,” address the reader and write “You must keep your apartment clean and tidy.”

3. Use the active voice

Sentences written in the active voice are usually clearer and more effective than sentences written in the passive voice. The passive voice makes your reader work too hard to understand who is doing what. In the active voice, the subject is the doer of the action: for example, “I love gender-inclusive writing.”

That doesn’t mean we should always avoid the passive voice. The passive voice can come in handy as a gender-inclusive technique. For example, instead of writing “The supervisor must give feedback to his employees monthly,” you could use the passive and write “Supervisors’ feedback must be given to employees monthly.” However, the sentence isn’t as easy to understand as in the active voice.

There are plenty of gender-inclusive techniques that can help you avoid the passive voice. In the example above, we could have written the following: “Supervisors must give their employees feedback monthly.” You just need to pluralize the noun. Simple, isn’t it?

4. Use shorter words and sentences, and omit unnecessary words

Long words and long sentences make information more difficult to read and remember. As government communicators, no doubt you’ve read plenty of long sentences that are difficult to understand and made you furrow your brow. Cut long sentences and create short sentences. Simplify the terminology by using more common synonyms.

Omitting unnecessary words is another useful technique. In the example we used in the section on the active voice, we could easily delete the pronoun: “Supervisors must give employees feedback monthly.” The shorter a sentence, the easier it is to read.

5. Choose verbs over nouns, and use lists

Nothing’s better than a simple sentence that uses verbs instead of a long sentence with too many nouns, don’t you agree? Here’s an example of a long sentence:

ECC is as efficient as it can be within the environment it works in and is constantly working on improvements, automation, and efficiencies.

And here’s the plain language version that also uses a list:

Our ECC team is as efficient as they can be within their current environment. They always look for ways to:

  • be more efficient
  • improve service
  • find automated solutions

Using the imperative is an extremely efficient trick when you want to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun. Instead of writing “The visitor should always keep his dog on leash,” you could write “Always keep your dog on leash.” This technique works especially well when you make a request or give an instruction, an order, or a warning.

In conclusion, yes, you can be gender-inclusive and use plain language simultaneously. And these are just a few of the many techniques that can help you. Want to learn more? Check out the Guidelines for Inclusive Writing (opens in new tab) and the Inclusionary (opens in new tab) on the Language Portal of Canada.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Chantal Turcotte

Chantal Turcotte

Chantal Turcotte is Director of Communications at the Communications Community Office, Privy Council Office. She has more than 30 years’ experience in a range of areas in the communications field, including speechwriting, managing writing services teams and as director of linguistic services. Chantal is active in her community, as a journalist as well as a member of the Board of Directors of The Echo of Cantley.


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Submitted by StevenSax on February 24, 2024, at 23:28

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