Communicating inclusively is complicated yet crucial if we want to achieve sustainable change within our local communities and worldwide. Talking about how our style guides make us feel can help.

Style guides inspire enthusiasm among writers, editors, and language lovers in general. As an editor, I appreciate their role in democratizing communication within groups or organizations of people with diverse perspectives and experiences, including at Chemonics. In 2020 and 2021, I had the privilege of serving on the team that updated Chemonics’ style guide. We released its fifth edition in 2021. Like many style manuals, our house guide advises on a range of writing and editing mechanics, including capitalization, citation, formatting, punctuation, word choice, and spelling. These mechanics might seem trivial — especially at an organization such as Chemonics, which focuses on finding solutions to urgent problems: famine, global health crises, and violent conflict, to name a few. But by providing a common language and stylistic conventions everyone can use, a style guide can promote consistency that leads to clear and inclusive communications, fostering mutual understanding and effective collaboration.

An organization’s style guide also often has related benefits, like demonstrating the organization’s identity or values. For example, Chemonics’ team members find comfort in how our guidelines align with our organization’s values: caring, excellence, innovation, opportunity, and integrity. We also appreciate the time these guidelines save by relieving us of the need to rehash debates each time people disagree about what is “proper.”

Yet like many colleagues, I find that style guides occasionally make me uncomfortable. Why? Certain guidance in them seems counterintuitive, contradictory, or outdated. But ensuring these guides stay relevant requires us to acknowledge that sometimes they offer the greatest value through the questions they raise and the dialogue they invite rather than the ready answers they provide. Those questions have implications for all fields, including sustainable development and any sector with a global scope.

Why Style Guides Matter for Inclusivity

Over the last several years, news about style guides has indicated much of the rising interest in them stems from the realization that we need to communicate inclusively, which is challenging in polarized sociopolitical climates. Increasingly, well-established guides such as the Associated Press Stylebook (AP Stylebook) are recommending specific terms instead of others for the sake of inclusion. It makes sense: Style guides are more effective when they equip us to communicate in ways that are widely accessible, using terms that are clear, consistent, and respectful — not bewildering or isolating. Some guides focus solely on inclusive language; these are often simply called “inclusive language guides.” These developments point to a growing consensus: The more inclusively we communicate, the more effectively we communicate.

In the United States, organizations across the public and private sectors see style guidance as critical to fostering inclusive communications. Various universities offer guidance on inclusive communication, from Arizona State University to Northwestern University. In Atlanta, Georgia, Mayor Andrew Dickens recently rolled out an inclusive language guide for the city. The U.S. government also provides guidance on using inclusive language. Corporations such as Capital One champion inclusive language’s importance on their websites. Chemonics’ experts in gender equality and social inclusion have written about how seemingly innocuous phrases, like “and other vulnerable groups,” can be counterproductive when the goal is to respond to underrepresented communities’ needs. And in 2020, Chemonics developed a guide dedicated to helping communicators select inclusive language and imagery by providing principles for depicting people and places. This process involved several people who were simultaneously updating Chemonics’ more general house style guide.

The movement to create style guidance on communicating more inclusively wraps around the world, as the Washington Post has documented. For instance, the intergovernmental United Nations recommends gender– and disability-inclusive language.

A Persistent Problem and a Path Forward

Yet style guides may still make us uncomfortable when they prompt us to use conventions that feel awkward or mistaken. For example, the fourth edition of Chemonics’ style guide (released in 2016) discouraged the use of “woman” as an adjective. The guide explained that we would avoid using “man” as an adjective (as in “man farmer”), so we should similarly avoid treating “woman” as an adjective and instead pick “female.” Many of us initially found this argument compelling. Nevertheless, using “female” to distinguish some team members and local partners from others occasionally felt, well, weird.

Mary Norris helped us understand why. Her 2019 New Yorker article, “Female Trouble: The Debate Over ‘Woman’ As an Adjective,” considers the view that “female” is more appropriate as an adjective within a biology lab or for non-human animals. The article does not pronounce “woman” a better adjective than “female,” or vice versa. Norris notes that “these designations encompass more than reproductive biology,” and no matter which “term we favor, we should be honoring” the differences with which we define ourselves beyond the realm of biology “instead of suppressing them.”

Our house style guide’s fifth edition explains that either “female” or “woman” is an acceptable adjective if used consistently. Even this line makes some of us a bit uncomfortable (including me, and I wrote it) for various reasons. For instance, we may use “female farmer” or “woman farmer” in our writing, but we almost never use “male farmer” or “man farmer.” Adjectives typically describe things or people that differ from the presumed norm. Often, the default is to assume the people doing the work of a farmer are men — until adjectives indicate otherwise. Is the solution to forgo these adjectives? In many cases for Chemonics, the adjectives are important. For example, in a sustainable development context, they may assist in thinking strategically about how to ensure a project’s outcomes equitably and inclusively reach all people — including women — within a given community.

By establishing the freedom to choose “female” or “woman” as an adjective, the fifth edition of Chemonics’ style guide encourages writers and editors to discuss and select what seems most appropriate in each context. The edition’s entry on “female” and “woman” also refers to Chemonics’ complementary guide focused on inclusive language and imagery, which recommends assessing whether designations that differentiate people by biological sex or gender truly pertain to the context. Both guides invite dialogue rather than offering definitive answers.

The last three versions of Chemonics' style guides, stacked in a stair-like pile.
Three generations of Chemonics’ style guides.

Navigating Style in a Complex and Polarized World

At Chemonics, we can start to explore how our language makes us feel by using the language we have in common — in part, thanks to our style guidance. Then, we can work together to find the best words for what we mean. However, language’s rapid evolution, today’s polarized sociopolitical climates, and the opportunity and need to communicate in local contexts around the world make it increasingly hard to establish a common language.

What a community in one place finds agreeable, a community in another place might find objectionable. That is one reason inclusive language guides developed within U.S. universities often spark so much controversy. Communities around the world also have different opinions about what is inclusive and how to make language more inclusive. For example, some in the United States think we should call a person who acts professionally for a living an “actor” regardless of their gender. But in 2019, the 40-member French Academy that “guards” the French language decided to overturn a rule that banned the feminization of many professional titles since the 17th century.

Because Chemonics implements programming worldwide and prioritizes locally led development, we as employees have learned to notice when style guidance makes us uncomfortable and to discuss it openly. We use the dialogue our questions and feelings generate to make our guidance better at fostering common understanding through what Karen Yin calls “conscious language” — that is, language “rooted in critical thinking and compassion, used skillfully in a specific context.”

Questions and a Case Study

Often, Chemonics’ editors entertain a set of questions to inform conversations about style guidance when it elicits discomfort. Others beyond Chemonics who want to create or revise guidance may also find these questions useful.

1. Why does the guidance or suggested language make us uncomfortable? Do we need to consult other experts to better understand what is at stake?
2. Why do we have the guidance, what are the alternatives, and what tradeoffs are there to using them? Can we make an exception to the guidance?
3. Do we still need the guidance? Should we update it? What priorities should the updates meet?

 

These questions may lead to complicated answers, more questions, and cost-benefit analyses that involve competing interests. But exploring these questions will help establish a rationale for adapting, keeping, or removing the guidance in question. The dialogue is key, although the process may be informal and involve only editors or editors and a group of other stakeholders (like writers, project or process leads, and others the decision will affect directly).

When we comprehensively updated Chemonics’ style guide in 2020 and 2021, we entertained versions of these questions to reach several decisions. For example, one concerned the demonym of the country Kosovo. (A demonym is a designation for the people of a region and can function as an adjective or a noun.) Chemonics’ style is mostly based on the AP Stylebook. (However, we use the serial comma consistently and diverge from the AP Stylebook on other points, like citation conventions.) The AP Stylebook recommends “Kosovar” as the demonym. The fourth edition of our guide also recommended “Kosovar.” But before 2021, writers in Chemonics’ Europe and Eurasia Division often asked editors to change “Kosovar citizen” back to “Kosovo citizen.” Some of these writers had lived in Kosovo for years and said “Kosovar citizen” felt less appropriate.

Our editing team could not find much written on the subject, so we asked colleagues in the Europe and Eurasia Division to explain further why they often wanted to revert “Kosovar citizen” to “Kosovo citizen.” Our colleague Lejla Kolenovic Ismail — who has a background in governance and peacebuilding, including communications, and over a decade of professional experience in Kosovo — said “Kosovar” is based in Albanian language. People from certain ethnic groups in Kosovo might read “Kosovar citizen” as an erasure of their identity. “Kosovo” as an adjectival noun sounded more neutral. Next, we considered whether to diverge from our parent style and use the demonym “Kosovo.” We realized we already used “Kosovo” as an adjectival noun — as in “Kosovo Albanians” and “Kosovo Serbs.” We decided to update the recommended demonym to “Kosovo” in the fifth edition of our guide to align with our priorities of communicating with sensitivity and consistency. In talking with Lejla this year, we learned “Kosovan” is now more common not only in European English but also in the USAID/Kosovo mission. Based on this new information, we will likely update the next edition of Chemonics’ style guide accordingly.

We will continue consulting with colleagues across the company and around the world as we search for the right words for what we mean, try to understand why certain words and standards may not feel quite right, and consider our next steps. Communicating inclusively is complicated yet crucial if we want to achieve positive, sustainable change within our local communities and worldwide. Style guides help us speak in common languages, fostering collective understanding. But ensuring these tools remain relevant as we strive to achieve a global sustainable development impact requires continual, deliberate dialogue and inquiry. Style guides work best when we think of them as more than reference tools and use them as starting points for dialogue.

Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.