Inclusive Writing for Writers
Inclusive writing is about more than being “politically correct.” Writing—especially professional writing—should show respect for individual differences, cultures, and experiences.
As writers, we can play a pivotal role—not only with the character of our content but also with the content of our characters, from how we tell stories to the words and phrases we choose to tell those stories.
The words we choose
They matter to readers, to coworkers, to brands, and to clients. Writing with inclusive language makes sure those words honor and respect everyone in your intended audience (and everyone else too).
Inclusive language forms the foundation of inclusive writing. Inclusive language avoids words, phrases, and tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, or antiquated views of particular people.
- Strives to be welcoming and courteous
- Respects and promotes everyone as valued members of society
- Uses precise vocabulary that avoids exclusion or discrimination
- Is constantly evolving
Do you want to connect with your audience? Then you should care about inclusive writing. Good writing strives to welcome readers, and using precise language that respects each individual and supports them as people is step one.
You’ll find that most of the inclusive writing guidelines presented here are focused on terms for people or groups of people.
You’re probably already familiar with many of the suggestions in this style guide, but others may surprise you. As with any change to long-standing approaches, these changes aren’t always easy to internalize, nor does this guide cover all the possibilities.
That’s why we offer general guidelines up front before detailed explanations and examples of inclusive language. The specific guidelines may be helpful if you’re writing for a new audience or about a new topic on which you may be more likely to use terminology that is unintentionally exclusionary.
Verblio’s role and
Questions or feedback?
As a company that employs thousands of writers and produces tens of thousands of pieces of written content each year, we can be leaders in facilitating inclusive messaging.
As professional communicators, we believe that writing in a way that creates a more inclusive environment for everyone makes the world a better place. Part of our responsibility as a content creation platform and community is to ensure that all writers and clients feel included, heard, and celebrated, and that the writings that those writers produce reflect those same values.
This handbook for writing with inclusive and bias-free language contains both general guidelines and specific guidelines that address the individual characteristics of age, disability, gender, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. This handbook is adapted from guidelines set by panels of experts on APA’s bias-free language committees and reputable advocacy organizations; a full list of sources is included.
General inclusive writing guidelines
At its heart, inclusive language strives to honor individuals and their humanity. One of the most important ways to do that is to refer to people as they refer to themselves. Being inclusive—that is, being welcoming and courteous, respecting and promoting people as valuable—often starts with using terms and language that they choose.
Language changes with time, and individuals within groups sometimes disagree about the designations they use. Writers should make an effort to determine what is appropriate in context, especially when a group has reclaimed or reappropriated a term that was previously harmful. These terms likely retain some of their former derogatory tone for some members of those groups.
Such reappropriated terms can lead to nuanced situations in which the most precise ways for others to refer to groups of people may be different than the way they refer to themselves. Yes, that means these general guidelines may conflict, and using the most precise, inclusive language possible in these situations is a best practice.
Also, be sensitive to labels. Acknowledge humanity wherever possible, something many labels struggle to do.
A great rule of thumb: ask someone who is different from yourself to read your work.
Precise language is not always inclusive, but inclusive language is always precise. In fact, many of the ways language has become more inclusive over time involves being more precise.
Step one: focus on relevancy.
Include only relevant information and specify characteristics only when necessary. Do not mention characteristics gratuitously; however, when in doubt, be specific and intentional.
Define the appropriate level of specificity early in your writing process and use that determination to choose the appropriate terms. Using specific terms improves the credibility of your work and improves readers’ ability to understand your writing.
Imprecise writing can lead to bias, so write with accuracy and clarity whenever possible.
Acknowledge differences without prejudice. Evaluate the meaning of the word “difference” carefully in relation to the target population, not just the dominant group.
What does that look like? It looks like avoiding language that perpetuates stereotypes or stigmas.
Inclusive writing uses language that is free of bias to avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes (even unintentionally).
This approach will necessitate an additional step in your editing process as you check your writing for inclusivity just like you check for spelling, grammar, wordiness, etc.
To address bias, it’s important to understand and recognize two different types of bias: conscious and unconscious. Both are prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another. Bias can have both positive and negative consequences.
Having bias is not a failure. We all have biases, and we can all work to become aware of them and address them.
You may be familiar with conscious bias. In conscious bias, a writer understands their feelings and attitudes so related writing is created with intent. This type of bias is processed neurologically at a conscious level in both memory and words. You can probably name some of your conscious biases (quick: what’s your favorite sports team, band, or movie?).
Unconscious bias operates outside awareness and can be in direct contradiction to a writer’s actual beliefs and values.
That’s a big deal. Not only does this mean unconscious bias is tricky to keep track of, but it means that this type of bias automatically seeps into a person’s writing. Luckily, unconscious biases are not permanent. Steps can be taken to limit its impact on your writing.
Addressing unconscious bias in writing requires thoughtfulness at every level:
Furthermore, as an individual writer you can address unconscious bias by being self-aware:
- Recognize your unconscious biases using a tool such as the Implicit Association Test
- Avoid scenarios that may activate unconscious attitudes (for example, working under extreme time pressure)
- Again, have someone different than yourself read your work
This guide is not exhaustive, especially with idioms, similes, or colloquial language. That said, be on the lookout for words that may exclude or harm. A good example: we’re pretty sure Shakespeare didn’t intend these two lines from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a racial slur.
And such a wall, as I would have you think
That had in it a crannied hole or chink
Shakespeare A Midsummer Night's Dream
But we’re going to use “a crack in the armor” instead of “a chink in the wall” when referencing a weak point or flaw.
Similarly, we have not offered an exhaustive list of every slur or term to avoid.
While consistent use of the specific language in this guide will help, these general guidelines will support you in many other scenarios.
These sections describe how to discuss age, disability, gender, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality with inclusivity and respect in writing.
Be specific in providing age ranges, means, and medians. Avoid open-ended definitions.
Terms for age are often gendered
Different terms are used for individuals of different ages, and these terms are often gendered. Use the terms individuals use to self-describe, whether these are binary gender categories of boy–girl or man–woman or descriptive and possibly nonbinary categories of transgender, genderqueer, agender, or gender-fluid.
For an individual of any age, appropriate terms are “person,” “individual,” and so on.
How to use “male” and “female”
In general, avoid using “males” and “females” as nouns; instead use “men” and “women” or other age- and gender-appropriate words. “Males” and “females” are appropriate when groups include individuals with a broad age range (e.g., “males” to describe a group that includes both boys and men).
For an individual aged 12 years and younger, appropriate terms are:
- infant (for a very young child)
- girl, boy
- transgender girl, transgender boy
- gender-fluid child
For an individual aged 13 to 17 years, appropriate terms are:
- young person, youth
- young woman, young man
- female adolescent, male adolescent, agender adolescent
For an individual aged 18 years and older, appropriate terms are:
- woman, man
- transgender man, trans man, transgender woman, trans woman
- genderqueer adult, cisgender adult
Older adults are a subgroup of adults, and the age groups of older adults may be described with adjectives. On first reference to a group of older people, be as specific as possible by including the age range, average age, and median age, when available.
Preferred terms include:
- older persons
- older people
- older adults
- older patients
- older individuals
- persons 65 years and older
- the older population
Avoid using terms such as:
- the aged
- aging dependents
These terms, sometimes described as “othering” terms, can connote a stereotype and suggest that members of the group are not part of society but rather a group apart.
Do not use these stigmatizing terms in your writing even if your participants use them to refer to themselves. Likewise, avoid negativistic and fatalistic attitudes toward aging, such as age as being an obstacle to overcome.
“Senile” is an outdated term with no agreed-upon meaning. Use “dementia” instead of “senility” and specify the type of dementia when known (e.g., dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease).
Be sure your language conveys that aging is a normal part of the human experience and is separate from disease and disorder.
When contrasting older adults with adults of other ages, describe that other age group specifically (e.g., young adults vs. older adults, middle-aged adults vs. older adults). You can use decade-specific descriptors if desired (e.g., octogenarian, centenarian). Generational descriptors such as “baby boomers,” “Gen X,” “millennials,” “centennials,” “Gen Z,” and so on should be used only when discussing studies related to the topic of generations.
Example: specific terms for older adults
|The elderly||Older adults|
|Elderly people||Persons 65 years and older|
|The aged||The older population|
Many of the terms to avoid perpetuate stereotypes about age and aging. “Seniors” and “senior citizens” are not uniformly recognized groups, so be specific about the age when possible.
Example: specifying ages for older adults
|Old men||Older men|
|Elders||Men between the ages of 65 and 75|
Use precise language, provide information about age range, mean, and median. This recognizes that older adults are diverse individuals.
Example: discussion of social security and Medicare
|Social security recipients||
People who are receiving social security or Medicare benefits and are over
the age of XX
|Medicare recipients||People who are receiving social security or Medicare benefits due to a disability|
Social security and Medicare recipients or beneficiaries are not a specific age group because social security can begin at different ages and individuals with certain disabilities may receive social security and/or Medicare benefits.
|Senile||Person with dementia|
|Person with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease|
Do not use language that implies that all older adults are experiencing perceptual or cognitive decline or have health problems, or that all older adults are frail. “Senile” is an outdated term with no agreed-upon meaning.
The language to use where disability is concerned is evolving. The overall principle for using disability language is to maintain the integrity (worth and dignity) of all individuals as human beings wherever possible.
Disability is a broad term that is defined in both legal and scientific ways and encompasses physical, psychological, intellectual, and socioemotional impairments. Authors who write about disability are encouraged to use terms and descriptions that both honor and explain person-first and identity-first perspectives.
Language should be selected with the understanding that the expressed preference of people with disabilities regarding identification supersedes matters of style.
The members of some groups of people with disabilities—effectively subcultures within the larger culture of disability—have particular ways of referring to themselves that they would prefer others to adopt. When you use the disability language choices made by groups of disabled individuals, you honor their preference. Honoring the preference of the group is not only a sign of professional awareness and respect for any disability group but also a way to offer solidarity.
As with other groups, insiders in disability culture may use negative and condescending terms with one another. It is not appropriate for an outsider (nondisabled person) to use these terms.
Person-first vs identity-first approaches
In person-first language, the person is emphasized, not the individual’s disabling or chronic condition. For example, use “a person with paraplegia” and “a youth with epilepsy” rather than “a paraplegic” or “an epileptic.”
This principle applies to groups of people as well. Use “people with substance use disorders” or “people with intellectual disabilities” rather than “substance abusers” or “the mentally retarded.”
In identity-first language, the disability becomes the focus, which allows the individual to claim the disability and choose their identity rather than permitting others (authors, educators, researchers) to name it or to select terms with negative implications.
Identity-first language is often used as an expression of cultural pride and a reclamation of a disability that once conferred a negative identity. This type of language allows for constructions such as “blind person,” “autistic person,” and “amputee,” whereas in person-first language, the constructions would be “person who is blind,” “person with autism,” and “person with an amputation,” respectively.
Both person-first and identity-first approaches to language are designed to respect disabled persons; both are fine choices overall. It is permissible to use either approach or to mix person-first and identity-first language until you know that a group clearly prefers one approach, in which case, you should use the preferred approach.
Avoid negative and condescending terminology
Avoid language that uses pictorial metaphors or negativistic terms that imply restriction (use the term “wheelchair user” instead of “wheelchair-bound”) and that uses excessive and negative labels. Person-first approaches are useful here, such as “person with AIDS” instead of “AIDS victim” or “person with a traumatic brain injury” instead of “brain damaged.”
Also avoid terms that can be regarded as slurs in favor of person-first approaches as well. For example, use “person with a physical disability” rather than the slur “cripple.”
Labels such as “high functioning” or “low functioning” are ineffective in describing the nuances of an individual’s experience with a developmental and/or intellectual disability. Specifying the individual’s strengths and weaknesses is more precise and focuses on the individual person.
Avoid euphemisms when describing individuals with disabilities (e.g., “physically challenged,” “handi-capable”). Many people with disabilities consider these terms patronizing or condescending.
When writing about populations or participants with disabilities, emphasize both capabilities and concerns to avoid reducing them to a “bundle of deficiencies.” Both “patients” and “clients” are appropriate within the context of a health care setting.
Inclusive language for mental health conditions
Choosing precise language when writing about mental health is especially important because there has long been a stigma associated with discussing mental health (not to mention seeking treatment or behavioral healthcare).
Many casual terms associated with mental health conditions exacerbate that stigma by painting mental health conditions in their worst light, ignoring the range of recovery stages associated with mental healthcare, and implying judgment of people who have been diagnosed with mental health issues. Terms in this category include:
Person-first approaches are best when describing people who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions; use terms like “Person with a mental health condition” or “person experiencing hallucinations.”
Other guidelines to keep in mind when discussing mental health:
- Don’t equate diagnosis with identity
- Emphasize abilities over limitations
- Avoid implying that recovery is an anomaly
- Be precise in avoiding use of mental health conditions as negatives
- Stay away from sensationalizing mental illnesses
Suicide is a sensitive topic, and it’s important to avoid equating suicide as a crime or something that can be a failure or success. Instead, use nonjudgmental language such as “they died by suicide” or “they attempted to take their own life.”
Example: using person-first and identity-first language
|Special needs||Person with a disability, person who has a disability|
|Physically challenged||Disabled person|
|Mentally challenged||Person with a mental illness|
|Mentally retarded||People with intellectual disabilities|
|Mentally ill||Child with a congenital disability|
|Handi-capable||Physically disabled person|
Example: description of deaf or hard-of-hearing people
|Person with deafness||Deaf person|
|Person who is deaf||Hard-of-hearing person|
|Hearing-impaired person||Person who is hard of hard-of-hearing|
|Person with hearing loss|
Most Deaf or Deaf-Blind individuals culturally prefer to be called Deaf or Deaf-Blind (capitalized) rather than “hearing-impaired.”
Example: use of pictorial metaphors, negative terms, and slurs
|Wheelchair-bound person||Wheelchair user, person in a wheelchair|
|AIDS victim||Person with AIDS|
|Brain damaged||Person with a traumatic brain injury|
|Cripple||Person with a physical disability|
|Addict||Person with alcohol use disorder, person with substance use disorder|
Example: mental health conditions
|They are mentally ill||People with a mental health condition|
|They’re nuts/psychotic/insane||They are not themselves|
|They’re schizophrenic||They have schizophrenia|
|They refuse to go to treatment||They feel like they’re coping and managing this illness|
|They actually recovered from a psychotic break!||They’ve made such strides in their recovery|
|They are a victim of anorexia||They are living with anorexia|
|I’m really OCD about that||I like order and precision|
My ADD is making it hard to finish
|I am experiencing a lack of focus|
I have PTSD about those types
|I have concern from experience that this event will feel stressful or traumatic|
|They committed suicide||They died by suicide|
Start with person-first language. Don’t equate diagnosis with identity, imply that recovery is an anomaly, or sensationalize mental illness. Be precise in avoiding use of mental health conditions as negatives.
The terms related to gender and sex are often conflated, making precision essential to writing about gender and/or sex without bias. The language related to gender identity and sexual orientation has also evolved rapidly, and it is important to use the terms people use to describe themselves.
Gender vs sex
Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Gender is a social construct and a social identity. Use the term “gender” when referring to people as social groups.
Sex refers to biological sex assignment, so use the term “sex” when the biological distinction of sex assignment (e.g., sex assigned at birth) is predominant.
Using “gender” instead of “sex” also avoids ambiguity over whether “sex” means “sexual behavior.” In some cases, there may not be a clear distinction between biological and acculturative factors, so a discussion of both sex and gender would be appropriate.
Gender identity is a component of gender that describes a person’s psychological sense of their gender. Many people describe gender identity as a deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or a nonbinary gender (genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid, etc.) that may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth, presumed gender based on sex assignment, or primary or secondary sex characteristics.
Gender identity applies to all individuals and is not a characteristic only of transgender or gender-nonconforming individuals. Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation, so be careful not to confuse the two. For example, a gay transgender man has a masculine gender identity and a gay sexual orientation, and a straight cisgender woman has a feminine gender identity and a straight sexual orientation. Precise language clarifies this distinction.
Cisgender refers to individuals whose sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity. Don’t assume cisgender identities in your writing. Instead, explicitly and precisely designate information about the gender identities of the participants involved.
Cisgenderism or cissexism refers to the belief that being cisgender is inherently correct, as indicated by the assumption that individuals are cisgender unless otherwise specified. Genderism refers to the belief that there are only two genders and that gender is automatically linked to an individual’s sex assigned at birth.
Describing gender: transgender and gender-nonconforming people
Transgender is used as an adjective to refer to persons whose gender identity, expression, and/or role does not conform to what is culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth. Some transgender people have a male or female gender identity, but others have a gender identity outside of this binary, such as gender-fluid or nonbinary.
Individuals whose gender varies from presumptions based on their sex assigned at birth may use terms other than “transgender” to describe their gender, including “gender-nonconforming,” “genderqueer,” “gender-nonbinary,” “gender-creative,” “agender,” or “two-spirit.” (Note that “two-spirit” is a term specific to Indigenous and Native American communities.)
“Transprejudice” and “transnegativity” denote discriminatory attitudes toward individuals who are transgender. Diverse identity terms are used by transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people, and “TGNC” is a generally agreed-upon umbrella term. These terms are generally used in an identity-first way (e.g., “transgender people,” “TGNC people”).
Be sure to use identity labels that are in accordance with the stated identities of the people you are describing, and clearly define how you are using such identity labels within your writing.
Describing gender: sex assignment
The terms “birth sex” and “natal sex,” are considered disparaging by scholars in TGNC psychological research, by many individuals who are transgender, gender-nonconforming, or nonbinary, and by intersex people. Additionally, “birth sex” and “natal sex” imply that sex is an immutable characteristic without sociocultural influence.
It is more appropriate to use “assigned sex” or “sex assigned at birth,” as this functionally describes the assignment of a sex term (frequently binary male or female; however, intersex is an accurate assignment for some) predicated on observation of genitalia and/or determination of chromosomes and anatomical structures of the body at birth, which necessarily is interpreted within a sociocultural context.
“Tranny” and “transvestite” are similarly considered disparaging and should be avoided. The term “transsexual” is largely outdated, but some people identify with it; this term should be used only for an individual who specifically claims it.
Describing gender: noun usage
Refer to all people, including transgender people, by the name they use to refer to themselves, which may be different from their legal name or the name on their birth certificate, keeping in mind provisions for respecting confidentiality.
Likewise, to reduce the possibility of stereotypic bias and avoid ambiguity, only use “male” and “female” as adjectives (e.g., a male participant, a female experimenter) when appropriate and relevant. When possible, use specific nouns to identify people or groups of people (e.g., women, men, transgender men, trans men, transgender women, trans women, cisgender women, cisgender men, gender-fluid people).
Two important exceptions for using “male” and “female” as nouns are when the age range is broad or ambiguous or to identify a transgender person’s sex assignment at birth. (That is, “person assigned female at birth” is correct, not “person assigned girl at birth.”) Otherwise, avoid using “male” and “female” as nouns and instead use the specific nouns for people of different ages.
To refer to all human beings, use terms like “individuals,” “people,” or “persons” rather than “man” or “mankind” to be accurate and inclusive. Avoid gendered endings such as “man” in occupational titles, as these can be ambiguous and may imply incorrectly that all persons in the group are one gender. These substitutions are often simple: “firefighters” instead of “firemen,” etc.
Describing gender: the singular “they”
Pronoun usage requires specificity and care on the author’s part, in part because pronouns associated with a specific gender have been found to induce readers to think of individuals of that gender even when the pronoun use is intended to be generic. Indeed, exposure to gender-specific language in a professional context has been linked with a lower sense of belonging and reduced motivation for individuals who do not identify with that gender.
When writers use the singular “they,” it reduces bias in the way that readers perceive the individuals referred to in the text and thereby helps ensure that readers do not feel ostracized by that text.
Do not refer to the pronouns that use as “preferred pronouns” because this implies a choice about one’s gender (a distinction particularly relevant for transgender and nonbinary people). Use the terms “identified pronouns,” “self-identified pronouns,” “pronouns” instead.
When writing about a known individual, use that person’s identified pronouns. Some individuals use “they” as a singular pronoun; some use alternative pronouns such as “ze,” “xe,” “hir,” “per,” “ve,” “ey,” and “hen” (a Swedish gender-neutral pronoun), among others. Some individuals may alternate between “he” and “she” or between “he and/or she” and “they,” whereas others use no pronouns at all and use their name in place of pronouns.
Refer to a transgender person using language appropriate to the person’s gender, regardless of sex assigned at birth—for example, use the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” in reference to a transgender man who indicates use of these pronouns.
When referring to individuals whose identified pronouns are not known or when the gender of a generic or hypothetical person is irrelevant within the context, use the singular “they” to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender. This includes using the forms “they,” “them,” “theirs,” and so forth.
Bias can occur when pronouns are used carelessly, as when the pronoun “he” is used to refer to all people, or when a gendered pronoun is used exclusively to define roles by sex (e.g., “the nurse . . . she”).
Alternatives for the singular “they” often fall short, such as when writers try alternating “he” and “she” in an attempt to use both terms as generic terms for gender. Other combinations such as “he or she,” “she or he,” “he/she,” and “(s) he” likewise end up being confusing or awkward for readers. Their imprecise nature also maintains bias toward binary constructions of gender and exclude individuals who don’t use these pronouns. However, the combinations “he or she” or “she or he” (but not the combinations with slashes or parentheses) can be used sparingly if all people being referred to by the pronouns use these
Describing gender: avoiding terms that imply binaries
Referring to one sex or gender as the “opposite sex” or “opposite gender” implies strong differences between two sexes or genders. Instead, use “another sex” or “another gender,” especially since there are more similarities than differences among people of different genders or sexes.
As noted previously, some individuals do not identify with either binary gender, and these phrases ignore the existence of individuals who have disorders or differences of sex development or who are intersex.
To describe members of a relationship (e.g., romantic couples, people in polyamorous relationships), use the phrases “mixed gender” or “mixed sex” when the partners have different genders or sexes, rather than “opposite gender” or “opposite sex”; use the phrases “same gender” or “same sex” when the partners have the same gender or sex.
Example: differentiation of gender from sex
It was participants’ sex (whether they were women,
men, or nonbinary), not their sexual orientation,
that affected number of friendships.
It was participants’ gender (whether they were
women, men, or nonbinary), not their sexual
orientation, that affected number of friendships.
Example: discussion of humans in general
|Man, mankind||People, humanity, human beings, humankind, human species|
|Man a project||Staff a project, employ staff, hire personnel|
|Manpower||Humanpower, human resources|
User-system interface, person-system interface,
|Man’s search for knowledge (or meaning)||The search for knowledge (or meaning)|
Do not use “man” to refer to all human beings; many more inclusive terms are available.
Example: use of gendered occupational titles
|Mailman||Postal worker, letter carrier|
Use a gender-neutral term to avoid implying that all people in that role are of a particular gender.
Example: specifying gender when it is not relevant
|Actors and actresses||Performers|
Terms used to refer to racial and ethnic groups continue to change over time. One reason for this is simply personal preference; preferred terms are as varied as the people they name. Another reason is that these words can become dated over time and may hold negative connotations.
The difference between race and ethnicity
Race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant. For example, people might identify their race as Aboriginal, African American or Black, Asian, European American or White, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Māori, or some other race.
Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs. For example, people might identify as Latino or another ethnicity.
Be clear about whether you are referring to a racial group or to an ethnic group. Race is a social construct that is not universal, so one must be careful not to impose racial labels on ethnic groups. Whenever possible, use the terms that your participants themselves use.
For example, instead of categorizing participants as Asian American or Hispanic American, you could use more specific labels that identify their nation or region of origin, such as Japanese American or Cuban American. Use commonly accepted terms (census categories work here) while being sensitive to individuals’ preferred vocabulary.
Writing about “minorities”
To refer to non-White racial and ethnic groups collectively, use terms such as “people of color” or “underrepresented groups” rather than “minorities.” The use of “minority” may be viewed as pejorative because it is usually equated with being less than, oppressed, or deficient in comparison with the majority.
“Minority” may also simply be inaccurate: a minority group is a population subgroup with ethnic, racial, social, religious, or other characteristics different from those of the majority of the population and therefore should only be considered if accurate and precise. If a distinction is needed between the dominant racial group and nondominant racial groups, use a modifier (e.g., “ethnic,” “racial”) when using the word “minority” (e.g., ethnic minority, racial minority, racial-ethnic minority). When possible, use the specific name of the group or groups to which you are referring. This way, you are emphasizing the precise use of “minority” rather than the implications or connotations of the word.
You’ll note this guide suggests “underrepresented” rather than “underprivileged.” Again, this is about precision: not all members of these groups are underprivileged. Underprivileged means having less money, education, resources, and so forth than the other people in a society and may refer to individuals or subgroups in any racial or ethnic group. Terms such as “economically marginalized” and “economically exploited” may be appropriate in certain contexts. Whenever possible, use more specific terms (e.g., “schools with majority Black populations that are underfunded”) or refer to discrimination or systematic oppression as a whole.
Spelling and capitalization of racial and ethnic terms
Racial and ethnic groups are designated by proper nouns and are capitalized. Therefore, use “Black” and “White” instead of “black” and “white” (do not use colors to refer to other human groups; doing so is considered pejorative). Likewise, capitalize terms such as “Native American,” “Hispanic,” and so on. Capitalize “Indigenous” and “Aboriginal” whenever they are used.
Capitalize “Indigenous People” or “Aboriginal People” when referring to a specific group (e.g., the Indigenous Peoples of Canada), but use lowercase for “people” when describing persons who are Indigenous or Aboriginal (e.g., “the authors were all Indigenous people but belonged to different nations”).
Do not use hyphens in multi word names, even if the names act as unit modifiers (e.g., write “Asian American participants,” not “Asian-American participants”). If people belong to multiple racial or ethnic groups, the names of the specific groups are capitalized, but the terms “multiracial,” “biracial,” “multi-ethnic,” and so on are lowercase.
Language that essentializes or reifies race is strongly discouraged. For example, phrases such as “the Black race” and “the White race” seek to boil groups down to generalizations, portray all members of groups as identical, and often perpetuate stereotypes.
Terms for specific groups
These examples are not exhaustive; this is a complex topic!
People of African origin
When writing about people of African ancestry, several factors inform the appropriate terms to use. People of African descent have widely varied cultural backgrounds, family histories, and family experiences.
Some will be from Caribbean islands, Latin America, various regions in the United States, countries in Africa, or elsewhere. Some American people of African ancestry prefer “Black,” and others prefer “African American”; both terms are acceptable. However, “African American” should not be used as an umbrella term for people of African ancestry worldwide because it obscures other ethnicities or national origins, such as Nigerian, Kenyan, Jamaican, or Bahamian; in these cases use “Black.”
The terms “Negro” and “Afro-American” are outdated; therefore, their use is generally inappropriate.
People of Asian origin
When writing about people of Asian ancestry from Asia, the term “Asian” is appropriate; for people of Asian descent from the United States or Canada, the appropriate term is “Asian American” or “Asian Canadian,” respectively. “AAPI” stands for “Asian American Pacific Islander” and can contextually be used in place of “Asian American.”
It is problematic to group “Asian” and “Asian American” as if they are synonymous. This usage reinforces the idea that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. “Asian” refers to Asians in Asia, not in the United States, and should not be used to refer to Asian Americans.
The older term “Oriental” is primarily used to refer to cultural objects such as carpets and is pejorative when used to refer to people.
To provide more specificity, “Asian origin” may be divided regionally. The corresponding terms (e.g., East Asian) can be used; however, refer to the specific nation or region of origin when possible.
People of European origin
When writing about people of European ancestry, the terms “White” and “European American” are acceptable. Adjust the latter term as needed for location, for example, “European,” “European American,” and “European Australian” for people of European descent living in Europe, the United States, and Australia, respectively.
The use of the term “Caucasian” as an alternative to “White” or “European” is discouraged because it originated as a way of classifying White people as a race to be favorably compared with other races.
As with all discussions of race and ethnicity, it is preferable to be more specific about regional (e.g., Southern European, Scandinavian) or national (e.g., Italian, Irish, Swedish, French, Polish) origin when possible.
People of Middle Eastern origin
When writing about people of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent, state the nation of origin (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel) when possible.
In some cases, people of MENA descent who claim Arab ancestry and reside in the United States may be referred to as “Arab Americans.” In all cases, it is best to allow individuals to self-identify.
People of Hispanic or Latinx ethnicity
When writing about people who identify as Hispanic, Latino (or Latinx, etc.), Chicano, Tejano, or another related designation, authors should consult with their participants to determine the appropriate choice.
“Hispanic” is not necessarily an all-encompassing term, and the labels “Hispanic” and “Latino” have different connotations. The term “Latino” (and its related forms) might be preferred by those originating from Latin America, including Brazil. Some use the word “Hispanic” to refer to those who speak Spanish; however, not every group in Latin America speaks Spanish (e.g., in Brazil, the official language is Portuguese). The word “Latino” is gendered (i.e., “Latino” is masculine and “Latina” is feminine), but “Latine” or “Latinx” can be used as a gender-neutral or nonbinary term inclusive of all genders.
There are compelling reasons to use any of these terms, and various groups advocate for the use of different forms. As always, use the terms that the people you are writing about use to refer to themselves. If you are not working directly with this population but it is a focus of your research, it may be helpful to explain why you chose the term you used or to choose a more inclusive term like “Latinx.” In general, naming a nation or region of origin is preferred (e.g., Bolivian, Salvadoran, or Costa Rican is more specific than Latino, Latinx, Latin American, or Hispanic).
Indigenous Peoples around the world
In general, refer to an Indigenous group as a “people” or “nation” rather than as a “tribe.”
In North America: the collective terms “Native American” and “Native North American” are acceptable (and may be preferred to “American Indian”). “Indian” usually refers to people from India. Specify the nation or people if possible (e.g., Cherokee, Navajo, Sioux). Hawaiian Natives may identify as “Native American,” “Hawaiian Native,” “Indigenous Peoples of the Hawaiian Islands,” and/or “Pacific Islander.”
In Canada: refer to the Indigenous Peoples collectively as “Indigenous Peoples” or “Aboriginal Peoples”; specify the nation or people if possible (e.g., People of the First Nations of Canada, People of the First Nations, or First Nations People; Métis; Inuit).
In Alaska: the Indigenous People may identify as “Alaska Natives.” The Indigenous Peoples in Alaska, Canada, Siberia, and Greenland may identify as a specific nation (e.g., Inuit, Iñupiat). Avoid the term “Eskimo” because it may be considered pejorative.
In Latin America and the Caribbean: refer to the Indigenous Peoples collectively as “Indigenous Peoples” and by name if possible (e.g., Quechua, Aymara, Taíno, Nahuatl).
In Australia: the Indigenous Peoples may identify as “Aboriginal People'' or “Aboriginal Australians” and “Torres Strait Islander People” or “Torres Strait Island Australians.” Refer to specific groups when people use these terms to refer to themselves (e.g., Anangu Pitjantjatjara, Arrernte).
In New Zealand: the Indigenous People may identify as “Māori” or the “Māori people” (the proper spelling includes the diacritical macron over the “a”).
Example: description of African American or Black people
“We interviewed 25
living in rural Louisiana.”
|We interviewed 25 Black people living in rural Louisiana.|
|We interviewed 25 African Americans living in rural Louisiana.|
“Afro-American” and “Negro” have become dated; therefore, usage of these terms generally is inappropriate. Specify region or nation of origin when possible to avoid the impression that all people of African descent have the same cultural background, family history, or family experiences. Note that “Black” is appropriate rather than “African American” to describe people of African descent from various national origins (e.g., Haitian, Nigerian).
Example: description of Asian American or Asian people
|“Participants were 300 Orientals.”||
There were 300 Asian participants; among these,
100 were from South Asia (India, Nepal, Bangladesh),
100 were from Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos,
and Vietnam), and 100 were from East Asia (China,
South Korea, Japan).
“Orientals” is considered pejorative; use “Asian” for people from Asia, “Asian American” for people of Asian descent in North America, or be more specific by providing nation and region of origin (Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.).
Example: description of Indigineous people
|“The 50 Indians represented…”||
The 50 Native Americans (25 Choctaw, 15 Hopi, and
10 Seminole) represented…
The 50 Indigenous People (23 First Nations, 17 Inuit,
10 Métis) represented…
Native peoples of northern Canada, Alaska, eastern Siberia, and Greenland may prefer “Inuk” (“Inuit” for plural) to “Eskimo.” Alaska Natives include many groups in addition to Eskimos. “Indigenous Peoples” may be used when the broader designation is appropriate.
Sexual orientation is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction.” Use the term “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference,” “sexual identity,” or “sexual orientation identity” so as to avoid confusion with gender identity.
Conceptualizing sexual orientation
Sexual orientation can be conceptualized across two axes: first by the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction, and secondly as having a direction.
Some terms for describing the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction are “sexual,” “demisexual” (or “gray-asexual” or “gray-A”), and “asexual”. A person who identifies as sexual feels sexual and emotional attraction toward some or all types of people, a person who identifies as demisexual feels sexually attracted only within the context of a strong emotional connection with another person, and a person who identifies as asexual does not experience sexual attraction or has little interest in sexual behavior.
For people who identify as sexual or demisexual, their attraction then may be directed toward people who are similarly gendered, differently gendered, and so on. That is, sexual orientation indicates the gendered directionality of attraction, even if that directionality is very inclusive (that is, nonbinary). Thus, a person might be attracted to men, women, both, neither, masculinity, femininity, and/or to people who have other gender identities such as genderqueer or androgynous, or a person may have an attraction that is not predicated on a perceived or known gender identity.
Terms for sexual orientation
Some examples of sexual orientation are lesbian, gay, heterosexual, straight, asexual, bisexual, queer, polysexual, and pansexual (also called multisexual and omnisexual). For example, a person who identifies as lesbian might describe herself as a woman (gender identity) who is attracted to women (sexual orientation)—the sexual orientation label of “lesbian” is predicated on a perceived or known gender identity of the other person. However, someone who identifies as pansexual might describe their attraction to people as being inclusive of gender identity but not determined or delineated by gender identity. Note that these definitions are evolving and that self-identification is best when possible.
Use the umbrella term “sexual and gender minorities” to refer to multiple sexual and/or gender minority groups, or write about “sexual orientation and gender diversity” (these terms are used by the Office on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity at APA and the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office at the National Institutes of Health).
Abbreviations such as LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQIA+ may also be used to refer to multiple groups. There is no strong consensus about which abbreviation including or beyond LGBTQ to use. If you use the abbreviation LGBTQ (or a related one), define it and ensure that it is representative of the groups about which you are writing.
Be specific about the groups to which you refer (e.g., do not use LGBTQ and related abbreviations to write about legislation that primarily affects transgender people; instead, specify the impacted group). However, if in doubt, use one of the umbrella terms rather than a potentially inaccurate abbreviation.
When using specific terms for orientations, define them if there is ambiguity. For example, the adjective “gay” can be interpreted broadly, to include all genders, or more narrowly, to include only men, so define “gay” when you use it in your paper, or use the phrase “gay men” to clarify the usage. By convention, the term “lesbians” is appropriate to use interchangeably with “lesbian women,” but “gay men” or “gay people” should be used, not “gays.”
Inaccurate or pejorative terms
Avoid the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality.” Instead, use specific, identity-first terms to describe people’s sexual orientation (e.g., bisexual people, queer people). These specific terms refer primarily to identities and to the culture and communities that have developed among people who share those identities. It is inaccurate to collapse these communities into the term “homosexual.” Furthermore, the term “homosexuality” has been and continues to be associated with negative stereotypes, pathology, and the reduction of people’s identities to their sexual behavior.
Homoprejudice, biprejudice, homonegativity, and so forth are terms used to denote prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, bisexual individuals, or other sexual minorities. Heterosexism refers to the belief that heterosexuality is inherently correct, as indicated in the assumption that individuals are heterosexual unless otherwise specified.
The terms “straight” and “heterosexual” are both acceptable to use when referring to people who are attracted to individuals of another gender; the term “straight” may help move the lexicon away from a dichotomy of heterosexual and homosexual.
Potentially conflicting guidelines
As mentioned elsewhere in this guide, rapidly evolving language, reappropriated language, and the general guideline “refer to people as they refer to themselves” can sometimes be at odds. For example, a group of lesbian women may interchangeably use “queer people” and “gays” to refer to themselves, but in the context of a written piece find one of these inappropriate (and not the other). Precision and definition are critical in these situations, but when in doubt, use more inclusive language and avoid using terms that other people - like your readers - may find problematic.
Example: use of “homosexual”
“The sample consisted of 200 adolescent
The sample consisted of 200 gay
The sample consisted of 80 gay
male adolescents, 95 adolescent lesbian
girls, and 25 gender-fluid pansexual people.
The sample consisted of 100 gay
male adolescents and 100 adolescent lesbian girls.
Avoid use of “homosexual.” Instead, specify the gender of participants. Note that the term “gay” may also be used to describe women or girls; specify its usage. The terminology will depend on the self-identification of the individuals being described.
Example: use of “homosexuality”
“Participants were asked about their
Participants were asked about the experience
of being a lesbian woman or a gay man.
Participants were asked about their experience
of their sexual orientation.
Avoid the label “homosexuality,” which has been and continues to be associated with negative stereotypes, pathology, and the reduction of people’s identities to their sexual behavior. Use specific descriptors of “gay,” “lesbian,” and so forth only when these are known identifications; sexual orientation may be described by individuals using a multitude of descriptive self-identification labels (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and many others).
Example: Differentiation of sexual orientation from sexual behavior
|“The women reported lesbian sexual fantasies.”||“The women reported female–female sexual fantasies.”|
Avoid confusing lesbian orientation with specific sexual behaviors.
Example: Differentiation of marital status
“Ten participants were
married, and five
Ten participants were married and living together, four were unmarried and
living with partners, and one was unmarried and living alone.
The preferred example increases specificity and acknowledges that legal marriage is only one form of committed relationship. Marital status is sometimes not a reliable indicator of cohabitation (e.g., married couples may be separated), sexual activity, or sexual orientation.
Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not only income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class.
Because SES is complex, there are not universal ways to reference it. Therefore, precise terminology that appropriately describes a level of specificity and sensitivity is essential to minimize bias in language. More specific, sensitive language helps writers avoid perpetuating stereotypes, pejorative terms, inaccurate implicit definitions and deficit based language.
Pejorative or stereotyping terms
Avoid using broad, pejorative, and generalizing terms to discuss SES. Specifically, negative connotations are associated with terms such as “the homeless,” “inner-city,” “ghetto,” “the projects,” “poverty stricken,” and “welfare reliant.”
Instead, use specific, person-first language such as “mothers who receive TANF benefits” rather than “welfare mothers” (“TANF” stands for “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” and is the proper term for the current welfare program in the United States).
When discussing people without a fixed, regular, or adequate nighttime residence, use specific language that addresses the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing, not whether the people consider their residence a home.
Use language like “people experiencing homelessness,” “people who are homeless,” “people in emergency shelter,” or “people in transitional housing,” rather than calling people “the homeless.”
Avoiding implicit descriptors
It is important to note that SES terms such as “low-income” and “poor” have historically served as implicit descriptors for racial and/or ethnic minority people. To avoid these connotations, include racial and/or ethnic descriptors within SES categories.
Implicit biases around economic and occupational status can also lead to deficit-based language that blames individuals for their occupational, educational, or economic situation rather than recognizing a broader societal context that influences individual circumstances.
Deficit-based language and adopting a strengths-based perspective
Deficit-based language also focuses on what people lack rather than on what they possess.
Instead of labeling people as “high school dropouts,” “being poorly educated,” or “having little education,” provide more sensitive and specific descriptors such as “people who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent.”
Alternatively, by adopting a strengths-based perspective, authors can write about “people who have a grade school education.” Likewise, instead of writing about an “achievement gap,” write about an “opportunity gap” to emphasize how the context in which people live affects their outcomes or opportunities.
Example: description of income
|The poor||People whose incomes are below the federal poverty threshold|
|Low class people||People whose self-reported income was (or is) in the lowest income bracket|
Many find the terms “low class” and “poor” pejorative. Use person-first language instead. Define income brackets and levels if possible.
Example: description of government assistance
People experiencing homelessness, youth experiencing homelessness,
people who are homeless, people who are living in a place not meant for
human habitation, people living in emergency shelters, people living in
transitional housing, people without fixed, regular, or adequate
The projects, the ghetto,
the inner city
|Low-income housing, low-income areas of the city|
Use specific language that addresses the quality or lack of housing or length of time without housing rather than focusing on whether an individual considers a residence a home.
Individuals can be precariously housed or experience chronic or transient homelessness. Avoid conflating social class and race or ethnicity by using coded language like “inner city,” “projects,” or “ghetto.” Specify race or ethnicity and measures of socioeconomic standing separately.
Example: strengths-based perspectives
|High school dropouts||
People who have completed 10th grade, people with
less than a high-school education (or equivalent)
|Achievement gap||Opportunity gap|
Avoid language that focuses on blaming the individual or on individual deficits; instead, focus on what people have, not what they lack. When comparing groups, use parallel terminology (e.g., people with a high school diploma vs. without a high school diploma or equivalent, not high-school dropouts vs. high-school graduates).
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