Inclusive language – or political correctness gone mad?

When I worked as a Hansard editor, sometimes we’d have a week where the same phrase popped up over and over again – across the political spectrum, in both chambers, and sometimes even as I eavesdropped around the corridors.

In one particular week it was this: “It’s just political correctness gone mad!”

In the kind of over-exuberance induced by lack of sleep, real food and sunlight, as well as the knowledge that it wasn’t going to end anytime soon, my small team of editors discussed having t-shirts printed. They’d be black, with “PCGM!” blazoned across the chest in large white letters. We thought it would be a good conversation starter, in the right circles. We didn’t get around to making a market study to find where that circle might be, but I have a feeling it might have had a radius of about 20 metres.

But this is a digression from my topic, which is that fine line between inclusive language and political correctness that can sometimes get in the way of meaning.

The Commonwealth Style Manual has a great section about inclusive language and avoiding bias. (There’s no online version of the government style guide, but you can read about it here.) It discusses legal requirements, stereotyping, bias, prejudice and the importance of referring to people and social groups ‘in inclusive terms’.

To my mind, a good start to this kind of inclusive writing is to ask yourself ‘Am I leaving anyone out here?’ For example, it would be unfair and incorrect to call a woman who does not have a job a ‘housewife’. Would a man in the same position be called a ‘househusband’? Of course not. That would be silly. (I have seen ‘housewife’ listed as a career category in a research paper; it rankled.)

Bias in language is insidious, and it matters.

Writing a job ad that implies only females will apply for a childcare position can unwittingly discourage men from applying and affect the diversity of the professional workforce.

In a news story, the assumption that a person who made an arrest was a ‘policeman’ degrades the hard-won gains made by women in the police force.

Writing a brochure to market a superannuation fund? Referring to someone in their 50s as ‘elderly’ is sure to send potential clients straight into the arms of your competitor.

And using ‘Koori’ synonymously for ‘Aboriginal Australian’ is a striking show of ignorance.

But I recently wondered if a term was going a little too far.

I edited a report for an organisation that delivers community mental health services. The people they help are not ‘clients’ or ‘customers’. They’re not ‘people with a mental illness’; perhaps they’ve recovered from a mental illness, or perhaps they’re caring for someone with a mental illness. ‘Community members’ is too broad a term. ‘Patients’ is too narrow. The report was collaborative, which meant that about 20 people had a say in which term would be used. After months of deliberation, the team settled on ‘client’, with an explanatory introduction about the choice of term and reminders throughout.

At the 11th hour, they had a change of heart. The term they went for (which had been kicked about before) was ‘person with a lived experience of mental illness’ or, for short, ‘person with a lived experience’. It was clumsy. It was time-consuming to make the changes. It made me think “PCGM!”

But then I did the hard yards and I could see that it was fair and true. In the end, the sentences read well and we got to lose the apologetic explanation of terms. Most importantly, the client was happy because all the people the service helps had been included in the report’s language.

If you’d like help to ensure your text is inclusive and free from language bias, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at