Inclusive Language: What Copy Editors Need to Know

Here at J&J Editorial, an often overlooked but essential function of our editors is active, conscientious promotion of inclusive language in academic writing. The language surrounding illness, disability, race, gender, and every other aspect of identity is constantly changing and developing, and it is our job to promote using the most up-to-date phrasing and terminology preferred by the groups of people our authors are describing. But what exactly is inclusive language? Furthermore, how do we know which terms are becoming outdated and what words are on the rise?

The first answer is relatively simple: inclusive language comprises carefully chosen words and phrases that describe a group of people fairly, accurately, and in the way they themselves wish to be described. Inclusive language should be free from bias, stereotyping, sexism, racism, and negative connotation. Sweeping generalizations and “convenience” labeling (which is lumping diverse groups of people together to conveniently simplify a statement or claim; for example, “white and nonwhite participants”) should also be avoided because they are often misleading oversimplifications and marginalize the people being described.1 Some examples of changes you might have noticed on the rise in academic writing and general speech in recent years are patient-first language (eg, a person with diabetes, not a diabetic), gender-neutral language (eg, the singular “they”; chairperson, not chairman/chairwoman), and avoiding the nounification of adjectives in reference to humans (a female patient, not the females in this study).

How we stay abreast of the changing landscape of inclusive language, on the other hand, is a bit more complex. Here is a non-exhaustive list of how we can do this:


Refer to overarching style manuals

A good first step to determining whether a term is appropriately inclusive or outdated is the overarching style guides often used in the publishing industry: AMA Manual of Style, Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, etc. The AMA Manual of Style has a particularly detailed section on preferred usage and inclusive language. While these are a helpful place to start, overarching style guides often wait to ensure a particular term or phrase will “stick around” before including it in the style guide. With how rapidly word usage can change, it might be necessary to extend your search.


Check out secondary resources

The Conscious Style Guide by Karen Yin, the GLAAD Media Reference Guide, and the National Center on Disability and Journalism Disability Language Style Guide, to name just a few. The Conscious Style Guide is a carefully curated selection of works on a wide variety of inclusive language topics that is frequently updated and provides social context and historical background on said topics. The GLAAD Guide was written to help the media tell the stories of members of the LGBTQ+ community accurately and fairly; its glossaries of terms provide not only clear, accurate definitions but also explanations and context for why a term is considered inappropriate or harmful. Similarly, the Disability Language Style Guide is another great resource to look specifically at the words we use to describe disability.


When in doubt, search it out

Some inclusive language topics are still highly in flux and are not extensively covered in overarching style guides. Examples include continuing developments in language we use for race and ethnicity, such as whether the term “person of color” is moving toward the status of a “convenience label”; the language surrounding immigration reporting; and the language we use to discuss mental illness and other often-stigmatized health statuses. While you might not get a perfect answer, taking the time to see how language surrounding different communities is shifting and changing will go a long way to helping you make a logical, ethical choice.


Remember that language and words are not always one size fits all

After looking through these resources, your thoughts might be reeling. There’s a lot to consider, and you might even notice that people within a specific community may sometimes differ on how they wish to be described (for example, there is a growing movement in the autism community that embraces identity-first language [eg, autistic person, “I am autistic”], but this is not accepted by all members of the community and moreover is very different from other communities who prefer person-first language). It’s okay to be uncertain or confused. The purpose of inclusive language is to refer to people according to their preference, not to assign people to neat, tidy labels. Since it can also change rapidly, especially among marginalized communities sometimes struggling with how to be referred to and whether to reclaim certain words, it is important to refer to communities how they want to be referred to and also to be ready to change as needed.


By carefully staying abreast of the changing landscape of our language, we can offer our journal staff, authors, and readership a more socially conscious and inclusive experience. If you have questions about whether your house style guide is up to date regarding inclusive language, please drop us a line!


  1. Frey and R. K. Young, “Inclusive Language,” in AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 11th ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020), Section 11.12.


Additional Resources: (Please note that some images in the sidebar of this article contain mild nudity in the context of body positivity.)


Article contribution by J&J Copyediting Client Manager Catie Sharpe.