Guide to Respectful Writing
Two things about me:
I’m an editor.
I’m an information collector and collator.
Item 1: Editing is my sharpest skill, the way I earn my living, and the most likely way for me to provide you with any real value. As a professional editor, in-house and freelance, working in STEM, medicine, and the social sciences for many years, I have collected some tips and guidance for writing about people. People-first writing and editing is a relatively newish concept in the field and it’s still evolving. That’s okay because learning and improving is a lifelong exercise. Which leads to the next thing.
Item 2: When I’m interested in something I want to know absolutely everything about whatever it is. I don’t sleep, I forget to eat, I scour the web without blinking till my eyes leak, I gather every related detail—and then I put it all in one place, in a logically organized manner, with my own thoughts embedded, and that’s what you read Shelf Life for. If you need further proof, ask me about my cosmetic database.
I never write a Shelf Life article on a subject I don’t care about (obviously) but this series is very special to me. I hope this will be a useful resource for my writer and editor friends and colleagues but also for anyone thinking, writing, or talking about people—especially people who are different from ourselves.
Herewith, then, the complete Shelf Life Guide to Respectful Writing, in three sections:
Please note: Terms appear in italics while phrases appear in “quotation marks.”
Content Warning: This third section discusses the language used around several sensitive topics including suicide, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse. The heading structure is intended to clearly indicate the presence of these subjects so that readers may choose whether or not to read each section.
Race and Ethnicity
The first section contains guidance on writing respectfully about people who have a different racial identity, ethnicity, or skin color than you do. Words mean things. When you’re talking or writing about people, you need to use the correct ones. It’s not okay to use oppressive language to describe your fellow humans when you don’t know them well or understand the ways in which they are different from you.
Words and Their Meanings
To start at the beginning, race and ethnicity don’t mean the same thing. They’re both social constructs that are used to group people together according to shared characteristics. Skin color is sometimes—but not necessarily—an aspect of either.
The term race refers to the division of people into distinct groups based on their physical, behavioral, and cultural characteristics, which may include physical appearance (skin color, hair texture), ancestral heritage or place of origin, and cultural affiliation. Race is often understood to be heritable and inherent; immutable and unchangeable.
The term ethnicity refers to the division of people into smaller social groups based on shared cultural, historical, tribal, or language characteristics.
Hispanic, for example, is usually considered an ethnicity and not a race since it refers to a group of people with a shared linguistic heritage. Black and White are typically considered races, as they are divisions based on physical characteristics as well as ancestry.
Describing Races and Ethnicities
When using the following terms to describe a group of people, you should capitalize them: Black, Indigenous, Aboriginal, White. You do not need to capitalize the term indigenous when you are using it to mean that something or someone is native to a place but you must capitalize it when describing a group of people. For instance: “Catherine is indigenous to Maryland” but “the Indigenous people of Maryland include the Piscataway Indian Nation.”
Style manuals disagree on the capitalization issue but most are coming around. The Council of Science Editors, for example, just published an update to the 8th edition of their manual regarding race and ethnicity in October. The American Psychological Association also offers excellent guidance on bias-free language, generally, and concurs on capitalization. A number of organizations (including the Associated Press) capitalize Black but not White. Personally I understand the sociological reasons for this but endorse consistent treatment of similar terms.
Black and African American are not interchangeable terms. Not all Black people—nor even all Black people in the United States—are African American. African American is not a "more polite" way to say Black. Black people live all over the world and may be Black British, Afro-Caribbean, Nigerian, Jamaican, Haitian, Afro-Latinx, or any other variation other than African American.
Black people living in the United States may identify as Black or African American, but they may have many other identities as well. For example, they may be recent immigrants to the United States from Africa, in which case they know their country of origin and may prefer to be called Nigerian American or simply Nigerian rather than African American (for instance).
While White people (and in fact people of all races, ethnicities, and skin colors) live in Africa and immigrate to the United States (eg, Elon Musk), those people should not be characterized as African American. Elon Musk could be described as South African American or Rhodesian American, but not African American. A White person should never be described as African American.
The distinction is in the privilege that White people from Africa typically enjoy in their ability to trace their heritage on the African continent to a specific country (and often to an origin even further back). The descendants of African people who were forcibly migrated to North America and enslaved do not have this privilege. The term African American should respectfully be reserved for them.
There is typically no hyphen in African American, even when you use it as an adjective preceding a noun. Likewise, Asian American, Native American, Irish American, and all similar terms omit the hyphen. Whether phrased nominally or adjectivally—as “I am an Irish American” or “I’m talking about Irish American people”—no hyphen. Some style manuals still recommend a hyphen, but most have moved away.
You do, however, need a hyphen when referring to other ethnic groups that originated in Africa but now exist outside of Africa and that are preceded by the specific affix "Afro": for instance, Afro-Caribbean or Afro-Latina.
Do not use the term Afro-American. This is obsolete. It has retired. There was a party.
It's okay to refer to people as White or Black. It is generally not okay to refer to other races or ethnicities with a color. If a person of color refers to themself as a specific color, that does not mean that you should correct them and it does not mean it’s okay for you to then refer to them as that color unless you belong to the same race or ethnic group.
POC is an abbreviation for the umbrella term person of color or people of color. This describes the group of people living in the United States who are not considered White. WOC, likewise, refers to a woman of color, or could refer to women of color or womxn of color.
NB: Person of color and woman of color are acceptable usages but colored person or colored woman are pejorative and should absolutely never be used.
BIPOC is an abbreviation for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. This is an inclusive term for people living in the United States who are not considered White that places additional emphasis on the historic oppression of Black and Indigenous populations. A related construction often seen in British usage is BAME, an abbreviation meaning Black, Asian, and minority ethnic.
Hispanic and Latinx (more on Latino and Latina v Latinx in a moment) are not interchangeable terms. They refer to different, though largely overlapping, groups of people.
A Hispanic person traces their ancestry to a Spanish-speaking culture, whereas a Latinx person traces their ancestry to Latin America. Therefore, a person from Spain is Hispanic, and a person from the Philippines may be Hispanic, but they are not Latinx. Conversely, a person from Brazil is Latinx but is not Hispanic.
Further, the term Chicanx (and its counterparts) is not interchangeable with either of the previous two terms. A person who identifies as Chicano has Mexican heritage, and may also identify as Hispanic and Latino. The specific term Chicano is sometimes used to describe a specific culture, whereas Chicano/a, Chicanx, and Chican@ are more often used in academic and political contexts.
Keep in mind that the terms Hispanic and Latinx refer to ethnicities, not races, and do not refer to skin color. Hispanic and Latinx people come in all kinds of colors, and not all of them are included under the umbrella term people of color. Hispanic and Latinx people may also identify as White, Black, or another race; or they may prefer to identify only as Hispanic or Latinx.
Asian and Asian American people may be referred to as such or according to their specific country of origin. They may prefer the term Korean or Korean American, for example, to the broader Asian or Asian American. People of Asian descent should never be described as Oriental, an outdated pejorative. Likewise, the outdated and pejorative term Mongoloid should not be used to refer to anyone (historically it has been used in multiple senses, racial and otherwise). If referring to the people or language of Mongolia, you should use Mongol or Mongolian.
Indigenous and Aboriginal Communities
The Indigenous people of the United States are respectfully referred to as Native Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives (Alaskan Natives is also acceptable). The preferred terms in Canada include First Nations and Inuit. Many members of the Indigenous community of the United States have a strong preference for either Native American or American Indian, and would not wish to be identified by the term that is not their preference. Further, Indigenous people may prefer to be identified as their specific heritage, such as Piscataway Nation or Cherokee Nation, rather than a general term. You should take extra care to find out someone’s preference before writing about them. It is not correct to say that one term or the other (Native American or American Indian) is always the respectful way to go.
In any case, Indigenous people living in the United States should never be referred to as Indian American—that term refers to people of Indian descent (meaning, from the country of India) living in the United States.
Jewish Culture and Identity
Judaism describes a religion as well as a nation and a culture. The term Jewish may describe an ethnicity, a cultural background, or a set of religious beliefs and practices. Jews may be people who are born into Jewish families, with Jewish ancestry, but do not practice Judaism or any religion (Jews of no religion); or Jews may be people who do not have Jewish ancestry but have converted to the religion of Judaism (Jews by religion). That is to say, people may be culturally Jewish, they may be religiously Jewish, or they may be both.
Jews may be White, Black, or any other race; they may live in any country in the world; they may speak any language; and they may practice any religion.
Antisemitism (also styled anti-Semitism) is hostility to, bias against, or discrimination against Jewish people. Antisemitism should be categorized as a form of racism, not a form of religious intolerance. Religious antisemitism, theological antisemitism, and anti-Judaism are the correct terms to describe religious intolerance toward Jews and Judaism.
The Caste System in India
When writing with and about people from India, you may encounter individuals who do not wish to use their name, prefer to use a pseudonym, or wish to use initials in place of their forename, surname, or both. This may be because, in some Indian cultures, a person’s forename or surname indicates the caste to which they were assigned at birth. A person may prefer not to disclose their caste assignment for personal or professional reasons—importantly, they may wish for their work to be considered independently of their caste assignment.
As writers and editors, we see it as our duty to disclose as much information as possible in the interest of informational transparency. That’s usually a great thing. For that reason, many publications will not allow an author or collaborator to work under a pseudonym or to work under only their initials. This is a specific situation for which those rules should be broken or bent in order to preserve an individual’s privacy.
Respectful Expression in Gendered Languages
Languages that ascribe gender to words, such as Spanish and French, can make it difficult to write inclusively about people who are not men or women. A nonbinary person of Latin American descent cannot accurately be described as Latino or Latina. And what about when you wish to reference a group of Latin American people of all genders?
Latino/Latina or Latino/a—this is exclusionary and should not be used unless you are referring to a group that only contains men and women.
Latin@ (pronounced latin-OW)—this is shorthand that means “Latino and Latina” and is therefore still exclusionary of the genderqueer community.
Latinx (pronounced latin-ECKS, la-TEEN-ecks, or la-TINKS; pl. Latinxs)—this is a gender-neutral term that includes all people of Latin American descent, regardless of gender. Presently this is the most common usage in the United States.
Latine (pronounced la-TEEN-ey; pl. Latines)—another gender-neutral term that includes all people of Latin American descent, regardless of gender. This is less commonly used than Latinx in the United States, but is preferred in Latin America.
Latin* (pronounced latin)—this has been proposed as an umbrella term covering all of the above (Latino, Latina, Latin@, Latinx, Latine, and Latin American). It has not yet found widespread usage.
Pejoratives and Slurs
You already know that the word world is full of disrespectful terms for groups of people and you know you shouldn’t use them. You don’t need me to make that ugly list. Many of these terms have been eradicated by respectful writers but even within my socially conscientious professional and social circles, there are some problematic words and terms that continue to pop up. In the event that you don’t already know that these words aren’t okay, I am including the worst offenders.
The “G” word that refers to the Romani people of Europe and their culture (also styled Rromani or Roma). This is a slur. There is no polite way to use this word. It is not an acceptable word for a lifestyle or an aesthetic. If you are not ethnically Romani, you should not be using this word in speech or writing. If you mean nomadic, you need to say nomadic. If you mean the ethnic group, say Romani. If you are referring to your personal style, say bohemian. The lowercase “g” word that derives from the same root (the one that means to be cheated or swindled) should also be removed from your vocabulary permanently.
The “E” word historically used to describe the Indigenous people of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. There is controversy over this term; some, but by no means all, Inuit people consider it problematic. The degree to which it’s considered problematic ranges from “mildly offensive” to “definitely a slur.” If this word cannot be used to describe you, I would strongly suggest you don’t use it. If you’re writing about a real person who is native to Alaska or the Aleutian Islands you should ask that person how they identify and then respect their answer.
Related: The act of rubbing the tip of your nose with another person’s is called kunik by Inuit people and sometimes also called a “nose kiss” by others. If, for some reason, you want to refer to this action—please do it without falling back on a pejorative term. Also don’t do kunik right now, we’re in a pandemic.
A final thought on race and ethnicity: A person’s genuine expression of self-identification overrides any rule in this and any other style manual. When people tell you how they identify you should use their language and terminology preferences when referring to them. Shelf Life and most other style manuals have agreed that Afro-American is over, but if a Black person asks you to refer to them, personally, as Afro-American—then it is certainly not for any manual to say that you should not.
Gender and Sexuality
The second section contains guidance on writing respectfully about people who may have a different gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation than you do, or who have a gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation that you don’t understand. It’s okay not to understand things. There’s tons of things I don’t understand. It’s not okay to use oppressive language to describe your fellow humans when you don’t understand them.
Big Queer Umbrella
The terms queer and LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, and LGBTQIA are used to describe an inclusive community of people whose gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, and/or romantic preferences do not fall under the broad headings of heterosexual and cisgender. Among many others, this is the community that includes gays and lesbians as well as transgender and gender nonconforming folks.
This group may also be expressed as GSM, or gender and sexual minorities, a term that is often used in the medical community.
Gender and Sex
Sexuality is a very broad term that refers to the aspects of a person that include their biologic sex characteristics, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, their gender expression, their sexual preferences, and can also refer to their physical, emotional, and social feelings and behaviors.
The terms gender and sex do not mean the same thing and are in no way interchangeable. Gender is not a “more polite” way of saying sex. Gender is a social construct comprising gender expression and gender identity. Sex is a different social construct that refers to the configuration of physical biologic characteristics that a person has, including gamete-producing organs, genitalia, and chromosomes. Man, woman, girl, and boy are nouns and refer to people by gender identity or expression. Male, female, and intersex are adjectives and refer to specific configurations of sex characteristics.
Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of their gender. Gender expression refers to the way a person demonstrates their gender externally through, for example, hairstyle, dress, behavior, and the pronouns they ask you to use to refer to them.
Transgender and Cisgender
If a person’s gender identity and expression matches the assessment of their visible sex characteristics that a doctor made at or before their birth, they may be described as cisgender. Cisgender comes from the Latin prefix cis-, meaning, “on the same side as.” You can think of this as describing someone whose gender identity and known sex characteristics are on the same side of the spectrum. You may have encountered this prefix before on words like cislunar, meaning something that is between the earth and the moon. A person who both cisgender and heterosexual should be described as cishet—a person who is not queer—and not described as a “normal person” in comparison to a “queer person.”
If a person’s gender identity or expression and their sex assignment at birth do not align, that person may be described as transgender or trans (NB: never transgendered). Like cis-, the prefix trans- is from the Latin and means “on the other side of.” Transgender people are those whose gender and known sex characteristics are on different sides of the spectrum. You are probably familiar with this prefix from words like transatlantic.
It is respectful to bear in mind that a transgender person does not become transgender when they come out to you as trans or when they start their transition. A transgender person has likely been transgender for their whole life, and may or may not have realized this about themself or shared that information with others. If a transgender person is living openly as a trans person, you may refer to when they began to live that way as when they “came out as trans”; it is always incorrect to describe that as “becoming” trans.
Transgender is an umbrella term that describes any person whose gender identity or gender expression does not align with the sex assignment they received at birth. This includes the people we usually think of as transgender—for instance, someone who was assigned female at birth but who is a man—but also people whose gender identity or expression does not match their known sex characteristics in other ways, such as gender nonconforming people.
The term transsexual is not interchangeable with the term transgender, and the correct use of the term transsexual is debated. It currently has two meanings:
A person who has taken any action toward physical transition, which could include hormone therapy or transition-related surgery.
A person who is living full time in a gender that is different from their sex assignment at birth, regardless of whether they have taken any physical or medical action toward transition.
It’s a loaded term; avoid using unless you have a very specific need that the term transgender does not cover and the person or people you are discussing are comfortable with its use.
Transition-related surgery does not refer exclusively to genital surgery but is an umbrella term that includes, for example, facial feminization surgery for a trans gal or chest masculinization surgery for a trans guy. These procedures are therapeutic, and should never be expressed as “cosmetic surgeries” even though the same procedures are sometimes (not always) considered cosmetic for cisgender people.
Transvestite historically was used to refer to a person who dressed in the clothing of the opposite gender (not sex assigned at birth). Meaning, for instance, a man who enjoys dressing in clothes that are intended for women, but who is not, himself, transgender. This term is no longer used and is considered problematic, so the correct term to use for that specific situation is cross dresser (noun). Cross dressing can be a form of gender expression but does not speak to gender identity.
On a related note to the above: A drag queen or a drag king is an artist—of any gender identity—who dresses as a caricature of hyperfemininity or hypermasculinity as an act of theatrical performance. Trans woman and drag queen do not mean the same thing.
If a transgender person has stopped using the name they were given at birth, that is their deadname or old name. You should not use it for any reason, and certainly never without the person’s express permission. Avoid the expressions birth name and original name.
In the interest of scientific and information transparency, academic and scholarly writers and editors may feel that they have a duty to clearly explain when someone has changed their name, for instance:
“Dr Sally Smith (formerly Dr Steve Smith) was the principal investigator on the study.”
Your interest in providing full and complete information is admirable, but you must never do this. Outing someone publicly as transgender can put their career, their relationships, and even their life at risk. Just because you know that someone is transgender does not mean that everyone else knows.
This is not the same as acknowledging that someone—usually a woman—has changed their name owing to a change in marital status. That is an editorial change, meaning someone has chosen to change their name to reflect a change in their identity. A transgender person who uses a different name than the one they were given at birth is correcting a mistake; further, it is a mistake for which they were not personally responsible. In writing and editing, as in all life situations, it is unethical to punish someone for a mistake they took no part in making.
Even if you are writing about the past and referring to a transgender person at a point in their life prior to transition, you should use their preferred name, gender, and pronouns. If it is critical to your writing for the reader to know that the person to whom you are referring is transgender and you have the consent of your subject, then you should refer to sex assignment or sex assessment at birth (eg, “Sally was assigned male at birth” or “Sally formerly presented male”). Never state that, for instance, a trans gal “used to be a man” or, even worse, is “a biological man.” Both of those statements are incorrect.
Identity, Expression, and the Gender Spectrum
Gender is a spectrum. As mentioned above, a person who does not identify solely and consistently as a man or a woman falls under the umbrella of transgender but may also be genderqueer; gender nonconforming (GNC); nonbinary (NB); genderfluid; agender; bigender; or another term not specified here. All of these terms have different meanings and cannot be used interchangeably. Briefly:
Genderqueer is an umbrella term that broadly refers to people who are gender nonconforming.
Gender nonconforming people are those whose gender identity or gender expression does not match others’ perception of their gender. For instance, a person looks like a boy to you but identifies in another way.
Nonbinary means any gender other than “man” and “woman,” or may refer to any person who rejects the idea of the gender binary as a whole.
Genderfluid people experience being more than one gender. They may identify with one gender today and another tomorrow; or they may identify as a mix of multiple genders at the same time; or both.
Agender people do not identify with any gender. Gender is not part of their experience of themself.
Bigender people identify as two different genders, either of which may include but need not be “man” and “woman.” They may experience both of their genders simultaneously, or they may fluctuate between the two, much as a genderfluid person does (NB: a genderfluid may experience any number of genders, while a bigender person experiences exactly two).
Gender identity and expression are not correlated with sexual orientation. Just because someone is transgender doesn’t mean that they are also gay; just as being cisgender does not mean that you are necessarily heterosexual. Transgender people and cisgender people can experience the entire range of sexual orientations and romantic preferences.
Sexual orientation is a term that describes someone’s experience of emotional, romantic, or physical attraction to another person or group of people.
Homosexual is a now-outdated term that refers to people who experience sexual attraction toward others who have the same gender as they do. This term should not be used.
Straight or heterosexual people are those who experience exclusive attraction to people of a different gender (typically, the one that is commonly thought of as their “opposite”—so men to women, and women to men).
Preferred terms for people who experience exclusive same-gender attraction are gay, gay man, gay person, and lesbian. When describing a person in a relationship with another person of the same gender, you should not automatically use the terms gay or lesbian (see next bullet).
Relationships are sometimes described as “gay” or “lesbian” relationships even when neither of the people in the relationship is a gay man or a lesbian. For instance, a relationship between two bisexual women could be described as a lesbian relationship but would be better described as a sapphic relationship or, better still, simply “a relationship.”
Corollary to previous bullet: Relationships should not be specified as “gay” or “lesbian” unless being compared or contrasted to similar “straight” or “het” relationships—unless you are drawing a comparison, there is no need to specify.
Genderqueer people, although they do not necessarily identify as men or women, may identify as lesbian, gay, straight, hetero, or any other orientation.
Bisexual, pansexual, and omnisexual are terms that describe sexual attraction to more than one gender. Some people may describe themselves using any of these terms interchangeably, while others appreciate shades of difference. Some people consider bisexual to be a trans-exclusionary orientation while pansexual and omnisexual are more inclusive. A bisexual person is not necessarily trans-exclusionary, although they may be in specific cases.
Asexual refers to a person who does not experience sexual attraction to anyone. Asexuality is a sexual orientation and should never be characterized as a lack of any sexual orientation. Asexuality is distinct and separate from celibacy; these terms are unrelated.
Like gender and sex, romantic preference and sexual preference are often but not always aligned. It is possible to be, for instance, bisexual but heteroromantic. Further, while many people who are asexual are also aromantic, other people who are asexual are interested in romantic relationships.
Gender and Sex in Medical and Social Science Contexts
When you are writing about specific groups of people for medical or social science purposes, you must use the most precise language available. If you are talking about people who are at risk for ovarian cancer, you should say that you are talking about “people who are at risk for ovarian cancer” because that includes all people with ovaries, who may be:
Likewise, if you are talking specifically about, for example, “men who have sex with men” (often abbreviated as MSM)—then it is imperative that you say it that way rather than saying, for instance, “gay men.” Not all men who have sex with men are gay or even bisexual. All kinds of men can have sex with men, with or without identifying as queer.
Pronouns and Honorifics
Always use an individual’s preferred pronouns. These could be (but are not limited to):
Zhe/Hir (pronounced zee and here)
The last bullet is a neopronoun, or a singular, third-person pronoun not officially recognized by the language they are used in.
Some people do not use at all pronouns and, in that case, wherever you would use a pronoun for that person, you must use the person’s name instead. If you’re writing about a subject who does not use personal pronouns, you’ll have a great opportunity to stretch your creative muscles.
A note on they/them. Many native speakers of English have a hard time using they/them for a single person, because we mostly use these to describe groups of people:
“Look at those three nuns. They are so cute. I love them.”
However, they/them have been in use as descriptors of singular people since the mid-14th century. You can see a great history of this usage from the Oxford English Dictionary’s blog. But I would like to point out that if you have ever said:
“Oh, look, someone forgot their umbrella.” or
“What can you say? To each their own!” or
“Any parent would be proud of their child for winning an Olympic medal.”
Then you’ve already used the singular they and lived to tell about it. In their guidance on using bias-free language, the American Psychological Association (APA) specifies that, in addition to individuals who request these pronouns, they/them should also be used in any situation where someone’s gender is not known, or when referring to a hypothetical person and their gender is immaterial to the discussion.
One more item on pronouns. You also must consider situations such as:
Any But He/Him
In these cases, someone has told you what pronouns they will accept but not their preference. If you are going to write about them, it would be respectful to clarify either by researching how the individual refers to themself, or by asking directly. Someone who specifies “She/They” may not have a preference; or she may strongly prefer “she” for herself, but wishes to show solidarity with the genderqueer community by accepting “they”; or they may have a strong preference for “they” but have chosen also to accept “she” so as not to have to fight about it day after day.
“It” is never an appropriate pronoun for a human being unless someone has specifically asked for that treatment.
When using honorifics, remember:
Mr is for all men.
Ms is for all women regardless of age, marital status, and context.
Mrs is for women who you know for sure to be married and who have expressed a preference for Mrs over Ms. Not all married women are Mrs!
Mx (pronounced mix) is gender-free and often used by NB/GNC and genderqueer folks.
M is an appropriate honorific for anyone regardless of gender identity and expression.
Your Excellency would probably be fine with anyone.
When you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, honorific, or gender identity—ask them and then respect their answer. That’s your ultimate takeaway on gender, sex, expression, identity, and sexual orientation: Make sure you are using someone’s preferred term or terms to describe them. Ask if you need to. Don’t guess.
The final section contains guidance on writing respectfully using person-first language when you are discussing people and the circumstances of their lives, including physical and mental illness, disability, and survivorship. You’d have to be a medical doctor, a sociologist, or a criminologist to understand the specifics of all the different circumstances described herein (and the many that I don’t specifically mention). Not to worry! You only have to remember the rules for talking and writing about these types of things and you’ll be all set. It’s never okay to use language in a way that reduces your fellow humans to the circumstances of their lives.
What People Are, What People Are Not
I’m going to put the summary for this article first instead of at the end because it’s so critical and so important to understanding how to write about people that I want you to be thinking about it while you read the rest. (And also whenever you are writing or speaking about your fellow humans.)
People are not their medical diagnoses;
People are not their circumstances; and
People are never the crimes that have been committed against them.
These things happen to people. These are the circumstances of peoples’ lives. They never identify people.
The key factor in person-first writing is placing the person before their circumstance. Literally you just write “person” before the rest of whatever you have to say. It’s so easy. There’s never a reason not to do this.
Here we go.
Physical Health and Diagnoses
Generally speaking, in the case of medical illness and medical events, people should not be expressed with their medical situation placed first. For instance, people are not “cancer patients” and they are never “cancer cases.” The respectful way to describe people who have received a diagnosis of cancer is “people with cancer” or “patients with cancer.” While doctors may research illness and study it, they do not treat illnesses. They treat “patients” or “people.”
Those with terminal diagnoses should never be described as “dying from” their illness; instead they should be characterized as “living with” their illness. It is okay to say that a deceased person has “died from” their illness; but do not use “dying” to describe a living person.
Don’t portray people as victims of their illness or of a medical event. While a person can “experience a stroke,” no one should be described as a “stroke victim.” Diseases affect people but they do not victimize (only people may do that). Likewise, people should not be described as “suffering from” an illness or having “suffered” a medical event. The term experiencing is preferred.
Body Size and Shape
As with other conditions related to personal physical health, it is respectful to use person-first language when referring to individuals with obesity. The terms overweight and obese, as they are defined by the NIH and other medical societies, generally refer to body-mass index and have specific, medical meanings. The term morbid obesity or the construction morbidly obese should be avoided, as those are being replaced by, for example, severe obesity. In any case, all of these terms relate to specific and well-defined criteria. You should not arbitrarily assign these terms to people, real or fictional, when you mean “an individual who is fat.”
The term fat should not be used in a derogatory or pejorative way. Overweight and obesity advocacy groups are working toward returning this term to a value-neutral description of body size. While some people may identify themselves as plus-size, that term refers to the range of clothing sizes made for larger people and should primarily be reserved for identifying fashion instead of humans. The opposite of plus-size is straight-size—never “normal-size” or “average-size.”
Generally speaking, do not use mental illness to describe people, or their behavior, if they are not actually experiencing mental illness. Unless you have specific information about someone’s diagnosis, then consider that:
A person with a super clean house is not “OCD.”
A person exhibiting mood swings is not “bipolar.”
A person whose behavior is challenging for you to understand is not “schizo” or “psycho.”
Corollary: Depression can describe the diagnosable mood disorder or it can describe an experience of feeling unhappiness or despondence. Not every person who feels depressed is experiencing the mood disorder. It’s okay to use the term depression in both ways.
As with physical illness, people can “experience” mental illness, may be “treated for” their mental illness, and are “living with” mental illness. They should not be identified by their mental illness: for example, a person is not “a schizophrenic” but may be “living with schizophrenia.”
People may be living with a substance use (note: express as “use” and never “abuse”) problem; or a drug or alcohol problem; or an addiction disorder. They should not be called “alcohol abusers,” “drug addicts,” or “junkies.”
Specifically Regarding Suicide
No one should be described as having “committed” suicide. Suicide is a public health concern, not a crime. Further, an act of suicide should never be described as having “succeeded” (resulting in a person’s death) or “failed” (resulting in a person’s survival). A person who has taken their own life has “died from suicide”; “died by suicide”; “killed themself”; or “taken their own life.”
A person who has tried to take their own life, and who did not die, has “survived suicide” and their attempt “did not complete.” (The act of suicide itself, for statistical purposes, is considered to have either “completed” or “not completed.”) No one who has died from suicide should ever be described as “a suicide.” A person should not be described as “suicidal” but instead as a person “experiencing suicidal ideation.”
Ability and Disability
A person with a disability may “use a wheelchair,” but is not “confined to” a wheelchair and is never “wheelchair-bound.” A person with a disability is exactly that, and should not be described as a “disabled person” and the community of people with disabilities in the United States should never be referred to in monolithic terms like the disabled or the blind. The term handicapped is obsolete and should not be used to describe individuals, groups, or facilities.
You might say that a person “has a seizure disorder” or is “a person with epilepsy,” but they should not be described as “an epileptic.” Categorically, you should never state that a person is stricken with, is afflicted by, or suffers from a disability, or that a person is a disability victim. Further, people with disabilities should also not be described as having overcome their disabilities if what you mean to say is that they are successful, competent, or productive.
People with physical disabilities should never be described as crippled, lame, or deformed. A person who cannot speak should be described that way—as “a person who is unable to speak” or “a person who uses speaking assistive technology”—and not as a person who is dumb or mute and certainly never as a mute.
A person with one of the many medical conditions that fall under the umbrella of dwarfism may respectfully be described as a little person (also: LP), a person of short stature, or a dwarf. The term midget is pejorative and should never be used. A little person may or may not identify as a person with a disability or consider themself a part of the disability community. If you are writing about a little person, you should not automatically describe them as a person with a disability.
Some individuals within the disability community may prefer to use identity-first language for themselves and their community, rather than person-first language. Examples of this preference can often be seen in the Austistic community as well as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. Many individuals therein prefer to be called "autistic" or “Deaf” or “hard of hearing” rather than "person with autism" or “person with deafness.” Note that when referencing a Deaf person or the Deaf community, Deaf is always capitalized.
The term neurodiversity refers to normal variation within the human brain and the differences in neurological function from human to human. The term neurodiverse community generally refers to those individuals who experience neurodevelopmental conditions (eg, ADHD, dyslexia, or intellectual disability), individuals who experience certain mental health conditions (including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), and individuals on the autism spectrum.
The diagnostic label for people who are on the autism spectrum is autism spectrum disorder. A number of individual disorders were formerly diagnosed separately; those disorders are now defunct, so you should not refer to people as having, for instance, autism disorder or Asperger’s syndrome. Those people are on the autism spectrum and overwhelmingly prefer identity-first language, that is, to be called autistic people.
A person who is not a member of the neurodiverse community should be described as neurotypical and never as, for instance, “normal.” It is important to note that not all members of the neurodiverse community identify as people with disabilities or members of the overarching disability community. Some do, and some do not.
An individual should not be described as neurodiverse, as the term diversity requires more than one person. The term neurodivergent is used and embraced by some members of the community to describe a single person. Others within the community prefer to avoid the term due to negative connotations associated with the term divergent. “Member of the neurodiverse community” is unwieldy but nearly always respectful when you do not know how someone specifically prefers to identify. It is also respectful to say that someone has, or is living with, or experiences a learning, language, or developmental disability or a mental health condition.
Briefly, don’t identify people by their life circumstances, whether those are temporary, episodic, or chronic. For instance:
NO: Bob can’t vote because he’s a convicted felon.
YES: Bob is a person experiencing disenfranchisement due to a prior felony conviction.
NO: Jill is homeless right now.
YES: Jill is experiencing homelessness.
Victims of Crime
While you shouldn’t describe people as victims of illness or circumstance, it is acceptable to refer to someone’s victimization by another person or group. It’s not wrong to say that someone is a victim of a crime. However, you should take special care when describing people who have had a crime perpetrated against their person, as opposed to people who have experienced a property or financial crime.
Trafficking and Enslavement
When you are discussing the systematic kidnapping, forced migration (trafficking), and enslavement of individuals and populations for the purpose of forced, unpaid labor, you must never:
Refer to these individuals as workers, laborers, or servants.
Describe a trafficked person as someone who has immigrated.
Use the term slave as a noun; instead use the word enslaved as an adjective, as in, an “enslaved person.”
Euphemize or romanticize the perpetrators of the atrocity, as in, “mistress,” “master,” or “owner.” “Kidnapper,” “trafficker,” and “enslaver” are more accurate.
Sexual assault is a type of sexual violence, and is an umbrella term that describes any act in which the perpetrator coerces or forces another person to engage in a sexual act against their will. Rape, child sexual abuse, and drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) are all types of sexual assault with different and specific meanings.
The term sexual abuse refers to any unwanted sexual contact between two (or more) adults; between two (or more) minors; or any contact (wanted or unwanted) between an adult and a minor. Not all instances of sexual abuse are sexual assault.
When referring to sexual violence, take care to use correct terminology. Not all victims of sexual assault, for instance, have been raped. If you are referring to a person who has been raped, you should refer to that person as a “victim of rape” and never as a “rape victim.”
Note that sexual assault and other crimes of sexual nature should never be expressed as sex assault (and never child sex abuse). There is a finicky but important semantic difference. The assault is one of a sexual nature. It is not an assault on sex.
Do not conflate the term sex crimes with sexual violence or any of the other terms that fall under the sexual violence umbrella. While sex crimes does include most sexual violence sexual abuse, it also includes any sexual act that is unlawful—things like public urination, streaking, and, under the laws of some cultures and even some jurisdictions within the United States to this day, extramarital sex between consenting adults. Looking at you, Alabama.
Notes on Minor Children
There is no such thing as a “child sex worker” or an “underage prostitute.” These individuals are victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation and should be described that way. Further, there is no such thing as an “underage woman”; that is “a girl” or “a child.” Any incidence of sexual contact between an adult and a minor should be described as sexual assault or child sexual abuse. Children cannot consent to these acts under any circumstances. They should never be described in the same language that would be used to describe consensual acts.
The term domestic violence (also domestic abuse or family violence) specifically refers to abuse or violence that occurs within a domestic setting. This can include many types of sexual violence as outlined above, including rape and child sexual abuse; as well as many other types of abuse that can occur within a domestic setting such as physical, verbal, emotional, economic, religious, and reproductive abuse and coercion.
Any type of domestic violence between current or former spouses or partners is specifically characterized as intimate partner violence (IPV); domestic violence and intimate partner violence are not synonymous and should not be used that way.
Identifying as a Survivor
An exception to every single rule above. Generally, you should never identify someone as their circumstance, but there is a special case for the word “survivor.” Many people identify as survivors of illness, suicide, or crimes committed against them. It is respectful to refer to someone as a survivor unless they have asked that you do not.
A Few Final Words
Thanks so much for reading this series on respectful writing. Words mean things. The words you choose when you talk and write about people matter. I would encourage you to consider whether it costs you anything to err on the side of being respectful, inclusive, and kind in your writing and editing. And if it costs you nothing to be more respectful, inclusive, and kind, then why would you ever not do that?
The way you think influences the words you use. Everybody already knows that. But the words you use influence the way you think, too. It’s a two-way street. Anyone who has ever stayed up till 4AM studying for their French final and then had a dream in French can attest to this. Just like you think in the language you use most, you think with the words you use most. If you make an effort to choose respectful language more often, you’ll find yourself becoming more respectful and inclusive in your thinking as well.
Thinking, speaking, writing, and acting respectfully isn’t a yes/no condition. It’s not even a place you fall on a spectrum. It’s a highway that everybody is on. The destination is the same but people are starting from different places and people are moving at different speeds. I think the vast majority of us on the road are at least going in the right direction. You don’t want to be the person going the wrong way on the highway. Try to never be that person.
Someone I love said to me the other day:
"You know, I don't completely understand transgender people but I can be respectful and kind now and learn the rest later."
She’s really smart. We should all do that.
Thanks to the people who previewed this series, suggested additions, tipped me off to resources, and gave me valuable feedback. They helped me fill some gaps I didn’t realize I had and gave me the opportunity to consider some things I had not. Their input made this series better in every way. If any mistakes remain, if anything was omitted, those mistakes or omissions are solely my own. Thanks especially to my dear friends Cassandra, Alf, and Jess, my colleague Emilie, my Neighbor Friday, and H (naturally).