Making letters and emails gender-inclusive

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Posted on 
February 5, 2018
Written by 
Josephine Versace (About the author) , Language Portal of Canada

The Translation Bureau recently published a linguistic recommendation on gender inclusivity in correspondence. In it, we describe some simple techniques you can use to write letters and emails that are inclusive of all gender identities.

Understanding gender identity

According to the Translation Bureau’s Gender and sexual diversity glossary, gender identity is “a person's internal and deeply-felt sense of being man or woman, both, or neither.” Someone who doesn’t identify with the masculine or feminine gender is referred to as having a non-binary gender identity.

The solution to a current issue

Our recommendation on gender inclusivity in correspondence addresses a very current issue. Let’s put things into context. In 2017, the Government of Canada announced that Canadians could now indicate a gender other than male or female when applying for a passport. And some provincial governments have also implemented a gender-neutral choice on identification documents like driver’s licences and health cards.

As a result, government departments and other organizations turned to us for advice on the following question: How do you draft correspondence that is inclusive not only of both sexes but also of non-binary gender identities? Our recommendation answers that question.

Gender-inclusive correspondence

Certain parts of a letter have traditionally included an indication of gender. For example, in the inside address, the receiver’s name usually begins with a courtesy title (most often, either “Mr.” or “Ms.”) that reflects the gender of the receiver. And the salutation usually contains the same courtesy title: “Dear Ms. Brown,” “Dear Mr. Smith.”

Moreover, when we don’t know the receiver’s name, we have been told in the past to use a salutation like “Dear Sir or Madam” in order to include both sexes. This last solution is part of what we call “non-sexist writing”: writing that is inclusive of both men and women.

The problem with these formulas is that a non-binary person may not identify with them. In order to be inclusive of both sexes and all gender identities, a new approach is needed.

Our recommendation

Our recommendation explains what we think is the best approach for gender inclusivity when you are writing a letter or an email to the following audiences:

  • individuals whose gender is unknown
  • non-binary individuals (that is, individuals who do not identify with either the masculine or the feminine gender)
  • a diverse group of people (so that no member of the group feels excluded)

In our recommendation, we show you how to make the receiver’s address, the salutation, and the body of your message inclusive. To see what we advise, go to the Bureau’s recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence.

Of course, in cases where you know the receiver identifies with the masculine or feminine gender, you can rely on the standard practices for business writing and use courtesy titles like “Mr.” or “Ms.” or other indications of gender. But in cases where you don’t know, use the principles outlined in our recommendation, to be as inclusive as possible.

We encourage you to read our recommendation. Do you think it will be useful for your organization or business? Do you already use some of these techniques for gender-inclusive writing in your workplace? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

Disclaimer

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.

About the author

Josephine Versace

Josephine has worn many hats in her career as a language professional. She has worked as a translator, editor, writer, reviser and now as a language analyst for the Language Portal of Canada. In addition to English and French, she speaks Italian and dabbles in Spanish. She enjoys communicating with people through her work on the Portal.

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It is great to see this government catching up to this day and age...

I'm so glad to get rid of the Mr./Mrs. naming convention. I've never liked how a woman would be given a different title based on her marital status, while this is not done for men.

It was never designed to stagnate womens’ prosperity. It was designed to adjust her title when and if she took a different last name.

In the past, women were required to take their husband's last name and became, for example, Mrs. John Smith, resulting in them losing their identity.

How did this erase their identity?

Because it implies that the wife belongs to somebody else and that if you need something, you don't contact the wife—you contact the husband!

Did you take on your partner's full name in place of your own?

I hope this helps clear up some confusion about the convention "Mr./Ms.": "Ms." is different from "Miss" and does not indicate marital status. A Google search yields the following: "'Ms.' is a title of respect before a woman's name or position that does not indicate her marital status."

This came up in school many years ago. I'm surprised I still remember. Lol.

I agree!

What about addressing someone from recruitment in an application? Dear recruiter? To whom it may concern?

Any thoughts?

Yes, you could certainly use the salutation "Dear Recruiter" or "To whom it may concern." Just make sure to capitalize the word "Recruiter" and use a colon after the salutation:

Dear Recruiter:
To whom it may concern:

Thank you, Josephine. That is much appreciated.

We simply need a title/salutation created for the non-binary gender; for example:

Mr. … Ms. … Mx.

Mister … Miss ... Mixx

Sir ... Madam ... Xir

Dear Mr. Jones ... Dear Ms. Jones ... Dear Mx. Jones

Thank you for your comment.
You may be pleased to learn that “Mx” was added as an entry in The Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 and in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged in 2016. In addition, the gender-neutral title is gaining ground in the United Kingdom, where it can be used as a title on official documents like driver’s licenses. Although it’s less popular in Canada, the honorific has been used in articles in The Globe and Mail and on cbc.ca. We’ll have to see how the use of the title evolves.

"Dear Sir and Madam" is not gender neutral! What about people who identify as neither sir nor madam?

Thank you for your comment! I apologize for the delay in responding.

You are correct: the salutation “Dear Sir or Madam” is not gender inclusive. This is why our blog post recommends avoiding salutations such as “Dear Sir or Madam,” “Dear Mr. Smith” or “Dear Ms. Brown” in correspondence: “The problem with these formulas is that a non-binary person may not identify with them.”

If you’d like to learn about the solutions we recommend for writing gender-inclusive letters, please read our recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence, which is linked in the last paragraph of the post.

Thank you for writing this post. I found it very helpful and I am excited to use my new gender-neutral communication tools!

We’re glad you find it useful! Feel free to share it with your network of friends and colleagues.

I am looking to see if my old fashioned greeting of "Dear" is discomforting or offensive to women in particular. I do not like “Hi,” and for highly formal correspondence, just starting with “Mr. Such and such” or “Ms. such and such” seems a bit cold. My online research seems inconclusive, so I think I will consult with trusted colleagues.

On another subject, the use of the pronoun "they" in reference to a single person is quite confusing (though I'm still a big fan of Elliot Page!).

Hello,

The salutation “Dear” can be used with all genders and gender identities. You’ll find examples of inclusive salutations using “Dear” in the Bureau’s recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence under the section titled “Salutation” (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-in...).

For information on the singular “they,” the Portal has a writing tip titled “gender inclusivity: pronouns” (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-in...) that can be of help. In addition, you may also want to read two blog posts on the singular "they"’ that have been published on the Our Languages blog: “The singular ‘they’ is gaining acceptance” (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/singular-they-eng) and “Embracing the singular ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun" (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/they-as-gender-...).

We hope you’ll find this information useful.

I don't think you answered the question.
So how do I address correspondence to someone who has informed me that their favored pronouns are they/them?
Dear Them?

In a salutation, if you know the person well, you can use the person’s first name:

Dear Pat,

If you don’t know the person, you can use their first name or initials, followed by their last name. Here are some examples taken from our recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-in...):

Dear P. T. Smith:
Dear Amrita Kumar:

In a salutation, you would never use a pronoun (for example “them”), because you're addressing the person directly.

We hope this answers your question.

In a salutation, if you know the person well, you can use the person’s first name:

Dear Pat,

In gender-inclusive writing, if you don’t know the person, you can use their first name or initials, followed by their last name. Here are some examples taken from our recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-in...):

Dear P. T. Smith:
Dear Amrita Kumar:

In a salutation, you wouldn’t use a pronoun (for example “them”), because you are addressing the person directly.

We hope this answers your question.

That's a pronoun, not a title - you wouldn't address a letter to 'Dear she', either!
Perhaps you could ask them what their title is - or avoid it altogether, and address it to 'Dear A.B. Cee', or 'Dear Aybee Cee'.

Is the use of a (known) first name an acceptable alternative in a professional setting rather than the seemingly dated standard Mr/Mrs/Ms/Mx salutation?

Yes, you can omit the courtesy title when you’re writing a letter or email to a specific person. Instead, you can use the person’s name in the salutation. For more information, please consult our recommendation on gender-inclusive writing in correspondence (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-in...). You can also click on the hyperlink to the recommendation in our blog post.

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