Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Am I allowed to say that?

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Political Correctness is...

Political correctness is… (Dave Kleinschmidt)

A no-nonsense guide to political correctness

Stop groaning at the back there. I’m not about to tell you that a manhole should be called a personhole, or that someone with a disability should be called ‘differently abled’.

Political correctness has unfortunately become a pejorative term. It’s trendy to sit back and scoff when the phrase is mentioned. But political correctness is really just a matter of courtesy, respect, accuracy and inclusion.

This post includes:

  • Are men women?
  • Are girls women?
  • Lady or woman?
  • Gratuitous modifiers (or the lady bus driver)
  • Tomboy?
  • Sexist descriptions
  • S/he? She/he?
  • Black and ethnic minority people
  • Travellers
  • People with a physical disability
  • learning disability/difficulty
  • Mental health issues
  • Autism
  • Gender dysphoria
  • Ageism
  • Christian name or first name?

When is a man not a man?

Studies carried out in the 1970s show that the word ‘man’ is not generally understood to include women. If we want to write clearly and without ambiguity, we need to remember this. Women are not men, but the notion persists. Just look at the frequently used phrases below:

  • The man in the street
  • The average man
  • The common man
  • Early man
  • Modern man
  • Mankind
  • Layman

A headline in the Independent newspaper read:

Stone Age man is now 200,000 years older

The story went on to use the phrase ‘ancient humans’ (hoorah!) in the first paragraph, but then reverted to ‘early man’. Confusion reigns. This double whammy of confusion and women-exclusive language could have been easily remedied by the writer (and the sub who wrote the headline).

Clichéd, women-exclusive phrases slip far more easily from the pen and computer keyboard than do their fresher, and more importantly, far more accurate alternatives:

  • Early man – prefer ancient people, early humans or similar
  • Modern man – prefer modern people or human beings today
  • Mankind – prefer people, humans, humanity, humankind or the human race
  • Layman – prefer layperson
  • The common man – prefer the ordinary person
  • The average man – prefer the average person
  • The man in the street – prefer the person in the street 

Yes, yes, using the term ‘man’ to mean ‘men and women’ has centuries of precedent. But this doesn’t make it right. Some of these well-worn phrases even do a disservice to men too, for example:

Man’s inhumanity to man

Why not: Our inhumanity to each other? This is far more immediate. In the process of finding ways to ensure we include women in our writing, fresh and arresting prose often results – and your readers will sit up and take note.

Sorting the women from the girls

When people criticise me for bristling when they refer to me as a ‘girl’, I explain, if they hang around long enough to listen, that language is a very powerful tool. It can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to demean, insult, undermine and exclude. Male black slaves  (and, indeed, black men after emancipation) in the American south were referred to as ‘boys’. Why then, in our society in the 21st century, is it considered acceptable to refer to women as ‘girls’? I don’t believe it is.

But when do girls become women? It can be a bit tricky, but just use common sense.

Newsreaders on Radio 4 have no problem referring to 17-year-old males as ‘men’, so in my book it’s OK to refer to females of the same age as ‘women’. Otherwise, if that doesn’t feel quite right in the circumstances, ‘young woman’ is fine, as is ‘teenager’ – although the latter is more suitable for younger teenagers. Once you’re in the territory of 18 years and above, ‘woman’ is always your best bet.

Of course I’m not saying that phrases such as ‘a night out with the girls’ or similar, should be banned. That would be political correctness gone mad. However, at the other end of the spectrum, referring to adult female murder victims as ‘girls’, as some reporters did during the recent Ipswich murders, is unacceptable. Perhaps they thought it was appropriate because the victims were sex workers. It isn’t.

 …And the ladies from the women

Try to avoid ‘lady’ – unless, if you were talking about a man, you would use the word ‘gentleman’. For example, it is absolutely fine to say: He was a real gentleman. And so, it is also fine to say: She was a real lady. However, the men working in the sales department should not become the ladies working in accounts.

‘Woman’ and ‘women’ are good, strong, down-to-earth words (as are their counterparts ‘man’ and ‘men’) and should be used confidently and without hesitation.

Gratuitous modifiers – or the lady bus driver

A modifier is a noun used as an adjective. Look at this newspaper headline: 

Woman doctor in car sex sessions

Well, at least it doesn’t say ‘lady doctor’ – but there are no circumstances in which this newspaper headline would have read:

Man doctor in car sex sessions

Descriptions of professional people are littered with gratuitous modifiers when the person practising the profession happens to be a woman. ‘Woman lawyer’, ‘woman plumber’, ‘female bus driver’ and ‘female airline pilot’ are all commonplace expressions. Yet we never read of a ‘woman nurse’, or a ‘female midwife’, or a ‘female secretary’. And there lies the rub.

We refer to ‘male nurses’, ‘male midwives’, ‘male childminders’ and ‘male secretaries’ because they are other than the norm. They are an exception and to be singled out as such. And because they are not the norm, the silent question arises: are they really capable of being a ‘proper’ nurse, or midwife or childminder? Conversely, there is the subtle suggestion that being male makes them a cut above their female counterparts (in particular, this can be the case with nurses and sometimes secretaries).

Of course, it is far more frequently professional women who have these gratuitous modifiers thrust upon them, and the effect is always to undermine, never to suggest superiority, as can be the case with the gratuitous modifier ‘male’. A prime example of this is ‘woman doctor’, which makes for an interesting comparison with ‘male nurse’.

And please send me money every time you hear a suicide bomber referred to as a ‘female suicide bomber’ and I will soon be a very rich woman indeed. Are we ever told about a ‘male suicide bomber’? What is the hidden agenda there? That it’s somehow worse because the bomber was a woman?

Listening to BBC News, I hear that ‘a female journalist has been kidnapped in Baghdad and her translator killed’. Now let’s unpick that. Would the newsreader have said ‘a male journalist’? If we want to find out the sex of the journalist we do so soon enough with that phrase ‘her translator’. And why weren’t we told the sex of the translator? I listened to the story related several times over by various newsreaders and I still don’t know. I am presuming this is because the translator is a man (the ‘norm’), otherwise they would have said ‘female translator’.

Say goodbye to the gratuitous modifier. If I want to be flown to Paris, I want someone qualified in the cockpit. In other words, a pilot. Or a pilot who happens to be a woman, no need to mention the fact, thanks for asking. But a lady pilot? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Didn’t she miss that last pilot’s exam because she had an important hair appointment?

Jack of all trades

On a similar note, a number of job titles are male-specific. Fireman and policeman are prime examples, often used unthinkingly when both speaking and writing. And yet the alternatives are more accurate, and sound absolutely fine too:

Firefighters’ or ‘fire officers’

‘Police officers’ or ‘the police’

‘Foreman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male, ‘forewoman’ if she is female, or otherwise, ‘supervisor’ is a good alternative.

Similarly, ‘chairman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male. ‘Chairwoman’ is fine if you are sure she is female. Otherwise, options include ‘chair’, or ‘chairperson’. Sadly (in my opinion), some chairwomen insist on being called a ‘chairman’ – always respect their wishes. It’s always best to ask the person concerned what title they would prefer.

Instead of ‘businessmen’, prefer ‘business people’.

Women-exclusive terms can proliferate when writing about the workplace, for example, ‘manning the phones’ and ‘man-hours’. There are many alternatives to ‘manning’ such as ‘staffing’, ‘running’ and ‘operating’. Similarly, ‘man-hours’ can become ‘work-hours’ or ‘staff-hours’.

Try to avoid popular but exclusive phrases such as ‘our boys in blue’.

Is it a bird? Is is a plane?

Ladies first?

The convention of placing males before females when referring to people of both sexes is second nature to most writers. ‘Husband and wife’, ‘his and hers’, ‘men and women’, ‘boys and girls’, and ‘male and female’ are all phrases which we use unthinkingly and unquestioningly.

When writing about married couples, it is almost always the man who is named first, and when writing about a married couple’s joint business (or indeed, a woman and man’s joint business), it is almost invariably the man who is named first.  Similarly, ‘husband and wife team’ is a commonplace expression, automatically churned out from many a keyboard. The phrase  ‘man and wife’ is an interesting one, the former being a person and the latter a role; for that reason, I avoid it.

Ring the changes – shake up this ‘natural order’ of things. Mix it up a little. Women don’t always have to be mentioned first – but hey, sometimes would be nice.

She’s such a tomboy

If a girl is physically active, or doesn’t like prissy dresses, or climbs trees, or expresses a wish to become a professional footballer, she is labelled a ‘tomboy’.

This is because the unthinking assumption is that anyone confident, energetic and daring must in some way be an honorary male.

Well, girls can demonstrate these qualities too – and should be able to do so without the risk of having their gender impugned.

A friend said to me recently, “Why isn’t there a word that would be the opposite of ‘tomboy’, such as ‘suegirl’?” That question is interesting on so many levels.

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Sack that bossy, haughty, strident, arrogant, domineering and abrasive woman who’s always demanding her own way, and hire that assertive, single-minded, self-assured, confident man who’s a natural leader.

See what I’m saying? The same qualities are often described differently, depending on whether or not the writer is referring to a man or a woman.

Sit back, take a deep breath and put on your best impartial hat before committing your judgemental descriptions to screen or paper.

Trilling and shrieking — an example of how women can be represented in the media.

Everyone did their best to write good English

Some strict grammarians would say this heading is wrong and should read:

Everyone did his best to write good English.

But there is no need to write ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ when the ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ might be a ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘hers’. Some writers who are doing their best to be inclusive, use terms such as ‘s/he’, or ‘he/she’, or ‘he or she’ (usually in the traditional male first, female second order). While there is nothing wrong with this, the result isn’t pretty on the page and can be distracting to the reader.

The solution is both simple and grammatically correct. ‘They’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ can be used to refer to a single person who might be female or male. After all, Shakespeare wrote: God send everyone their heart’s desire, and various dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary,  say quite clearly that ‘they’ (or ‘them’ or ‘their’) can be used to mean ‘he’or ‘she’.

So, the sentences below are correct. The underlined words refer to a single person, but it is not known if they are female or male:

Anyone can take their umbrella if they wish.

No one said their recipe was the best.

He heard them enter the house.

If they would like to take the exam we will ensure a room is ready for them.

Someone saw their dreams come true today.

Another solution to this problem is discussed in the comment thread accompanying the post, ‘Another he that could be a she’.

A word from the authoress

You can safely discard the suffix ‘-ess’ in most cases. Avoid, for example, words such as ‘authoress’, or ‘poetess’.

Some of these ‘-ess’ words are considered more acceptable than others: ‘actress’, for example, has a certain ring to it. If you are writing about a specific woman who wants to have ‘ess’ added to the name of her profession, do her the courtesy of abiding by her wishes.

It is obviously still OK to use the suffix ‘ess’ when writing about female animals, for example, ‘lioness’ and ‘tigress’.

He’s so cute

Another interesting point is the tendency to refer to animals as ‘he’, whether or not their sex is known. As with so much other female-exclusive language this gives the impression that maleness is the norm and the standard, and femaleness something else. If the sex of the creature is unknown, the alternative is simple: ‘it’ is not offensive to animals and is gender-neutral.

A black and white argument

Many of the guidelines which apply to writing about women and men can be easily transferred to writing about black and ethnic minority people. Just as you should never write ‘woman doctor’ or similar, it is obvious that you should never write, for example, ‘black doctor’ or ‘Asian doctor’ unless it’s absolutely necessary to the sense, context and import of what you are writing about.

By the way, the phrase ‘minority ethnic’ is, to my ears, a strange inversion of ‘ethnic minority. The latter seems to make  more sense and is the one I use.

I also have a bit of a personal thing about the phrases ‘black community’ and ‘ethnic minority communities’. Do all these people really feel they are part of such a community? Or are they convenient verbal constructs for lazy writers? I know it would really irritate me if I were described as belonging to the ‘white community’. Just something for you to ponder as you chew your pen or tinker with your keyboard.


No, not people off on their holidays – they would be travellers (lower-case ‘t’). I’m talking here about people who are Travellers, Gypsies, or Irish Travellers – all of which are acceptable terms and all of which take initial capital letters.

There is no need to describe people as any of the above if the fact is not relevant to what you are writing about.

Never use words such as ‘tinker’, ‘gypo/gyppo’ or ‘itinerant’. Not even with an initial capital letter. Ever.

Sweeping away class barriers?

People with a physical or mental condition

Describing people who have certain physical and mental conditions can be very tricky indeed. But there are two golden rules that will help you no end.

  • Firstly, don’t mention a person’s physical or mental condition unless it’s relevant to what you are writing or speaking about.
  • Secondly, if you are talking about an individual, don’t hesitate to ask them how they would prefer to be described. If they cannot speak for themselves, ask their parent, personal assistant, carer or the person closest to them. Don’t be shy about doing this. It shows respect for their feelings and preferences, and they will prefer being asked to later reading a description that they will interpret as patronising, insulting or inaccurate.

Here are a few more guidelines:

Avoid using general phrases to lump people together as a homogenous group defined solely by a particular condition. For example, terms such as ‘the deaf’, ‘the blind’, and ‘the disabled’ should be avoided. Anyone with a particular condition should not be defined as that condition. Never write, for example:

He’s an epileptic.

No he isn’t. He has epilepsy. Read more on this, including the views of the charity, Epilepsy Action.

Avoid phrases such as ‘victim of’, ‘suffering from’, or ‘afflicted with’.

Avoid calling disabled people ‘brave’ or ‘special’ – unless you would have described them in this way if they had not been disabled.

Being described as ‘brave’ or ‘special’ because you use a wheelchair, or are deaf or blind, is astonishingly patronising as well as a lazy cliché.

Be aware that ‘carer’ can be a tricky word – the term ‘personal assistant’ or ‘enabler’ is often now preferred. Also, some people object strongly to this label (and that of ‘enabler’ or ‘personal assistant’) when they are first a parent, husband, wife, friend, sister, brother, son or daughter.


Don’t describe people who use a wheelchair as ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘in a wheelchair’. Prefer ‘wheelchair user’, or use phrases such as ‘he uses a wheelchair’.  

It is true that some disabled people don’t mind how they are described, and have no objection to words such as ‘handicapped’, for example. However, some disabled people object very strongly to such terms, and it’s advisable to avoid them completely.

See this excellent must-read discussion about various terms used to describe disabled people.

A while back, a columnist in the Sunday Mirror referred to a child with Hunter Syndrome as ‘handicapped’ and also used the phrase ‘handicapped kids’. I’d argue that it’s best not to follow such examples.

I used to think that ‘people with disabilities’ was a better phrase than ‘disabled people’ because it puts people first. However, I’ve since learnt that ‘disabled people’ is usually preferable, as disabled people can feel they are ‘disabled’ by an unsuitable physical environment and the negative attitude of society which holds them back, rather than their own physical condition. (This is to do with a concept referred to as the ‘social model of disability’.)

Don’t get too bogged down in all of this. All you need to know is that the phrase ‘disabled people’ is fine and should not cause offence. However, do note that there will always be disagreement about this issue (see the discussion relating to this under ‘Describing people with physical and mental conditions’). This underlines my advice above – to ask the person concerned how they would like to be described (if a description is needed at all).

Never use the word ‘invalid’ as this can suggests that someone is in-valid or without worth. It almost goes without saying that words such as ‘cripple’ – and others I won’t insult your intelligence by listing – should never be used.

It can be problematic to refer to someone who is not a wheelchair user as ‘able-bodied’. If you need to differentiate in this way,  the term ‘non-disabled’ may be a better choice. This is because ‘able-bodied’ may imply that someone who uses a wheelchair is not able.

Deaf and not so dumb

Unbelievably, the phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ still appears in newspapers and magazines, and is still used by broadcasters. It makes me cringe every time I see or hear it.  The phrase is both insulting and inaccurate. The terms ‘stone deaf’, ‘deaf-mute’ and ‘mute’ are also best consigned to the dustbin.

Always use ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing impaired’. ‘Hearing impaired’ can be a good bet if you are talking about a number of people, as levels of hearing can vary widely from person to person.

If a deaf or hearing impaired person does not speak, be aware that they may be a sign language user (not ‘deaf and dumb’, or a ‘deaf mute’).

As a slight complication, the word ‘deaf’ should sometimes take an upper-case ‘D’. You should write ‘Deaf’ when referring to the Deaf Community, or members of the Deaf Community. Members of the Deaf Community in the UK usually have British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language, or have adopted it as their main language. They share a culture and heritage, and BSL is at the heart of their community. In comparison, deaf people (with a lower-case ‘d’) live more in the ‘hearing world’, and depend far more on lip-reading. Again, do not be afraid to ask respectfully how someone would prefer to be described (if it’s necessary to refer to their deafness at all).

Don’t automatically assume that people who are deaf, hearing impaired or members of the Deaf Community can be described as ‘disabled’. People who are deaf or hearing impaired can deeply resent this description. I shall never forget the deaf teacher who demanded of her (hearing) sign language pupils: ‘Would you describe me as disabled?’.  Be aware that this attitude may be shared by others with physical conditions which are commonly described as a ‘disability’.

This same woman was deeply angry about a lot of newspaper coverage of deaf or hearing impaired people. One story in particular, which described the ‘miraculous’ way in which a deaf woman was able to care for her new baby, struck her as being particularly ludicrous and patronising (she was herself a mother).

As a side issue, do bear in mind that British Sign Language is not a form of pidgin English (a patronising and insulting assumption that many people seem to make). It is an independent language, as sophisticated as spoken English, and with its own grammatical rules. NEVER refer to British Sign Language as ‘deaf and dumb language’.

Remember the golden rule – if in doubt about how to describe someone, ask them.

Blindingly obvious

Phrases such as ‘blind people’, people who are blind’ ‘partially sighted’ ‘sight impaired’ and ‘people with a visual impairment’ are all acceptable.

When referring to blind and visually impaired people generally, prefer the term ‘visually impaired’ as not everyone with a visual impairment is completely blind.

Learning disability? Or learning difficulty?

Tread extra carefully in this particular minefield.

I was told off by a very kind but very po-faced council employee that my use of the term ‘learning disability’ was no longer acceptable. ‘Learning difficulty’ was the phrase du jour and I should start to use it forthwith. The very next day I was listening to a radio phone-in. A mother rang in to say how deeply angry she was that officials in various professions had started to refer to her son as having ‘learning difficulties’. He had, she asserted, a learning disability; there were many things he would never learn to do, and many obstacles he would never overcome. Things were not ‘difficult’ for him: they were impossible.

‘Mentally handicapped’ is now an outdated term and in many quarters no longer acceptable. You will still see and hear it used, but that doesn’t necessarily make it OK. In 2006, I heard a BBC World Service newsreader refer to ‘mentally handicapped children’ and on the same day a radio play synopsis in the Radio Times described one of the characters as  ‘mentally handicapped’. In both these cases, ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘learning disability’ would have been preferable.

Nonetheless, it’s very important to note that some people believe the terms ‘mentally handicapped’ and ‘severely mentally handicapped’ are not only acceptable, but actually preferable to other phrases such as ‘learning disability’. This debate was aired a while back in the Independent newspaper when columnist Dominic Lawson defended his right to refer to his daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, as ‘mentally handicapped’. He argued persuasively against ‘fashionable catch-all phrases such as “having learning disabilities”’ and posited that such language has the pernicious knock-on effect of denying the reality of some people’s lives. Some people believe this has led to a reduction in financial and social support for those who are severely affected by a mental and/or physical disability.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the term for someone with Down’s syndrome is just that. Upper-case ‘D’ lower-case ‘s’. Obviously, terms such as ‘mongol’ and ‘mongoloid’ should never be used. Don’t use phrases such as ‘Down’s baby’, prefer ‘a baby who has Down’s syndrome’. ‘Down syndrome’ is also used in the US.

Remember the golden rule – if in doubt about how to describe someone, ask the person concerned, or if this is impossible, those closest to them. And remember to always ask yourself if it’s necessary to mention the person’s condition at all.

If someone insists that they or someone they care for should be referred to as ‘mentally handicapped’, make this clear in your text. For example: ‘Mr Brown, who describes himself as mentally handicapped’.

By doing this, you are showing your respect for the wishes of the person concerned, as well as your awareness of and respect for the views of those readers who object strongly to such terms.

Mental health issues: Bonkers Bruno locked up

This 2003 Sun newspaper headline was changed in later editions following an outcry from mental health organisations and the public.

But words that convey a negative image of mental illness and distress still saturate our media and everyday language.

Bipolar as a term of abuse.

Don’t confuse mental health issues with learning difficulty/disability issues.

As a general rule, put the person first when writing. For example: ‘Michael has a mental illness’, ‘Anne has a mental health problem’, ‘They have mental health difficulties’, ‘George has experienced mental/emotional distress’. Avoid phrases such as ‘Mary is mentally ill’, or ‘Paul suffers from a mental illness’.

Avoid using any clinical terms for particular mental health conditions (especially those frequently bandied about such as ‘psychopathic’ and ‘psychotic’) unless you are absolutely sure you are using the correct one. A while back, the Sunday Mirror columnist mentioned above referred to a murderer as a ‘psychotic piece of scum’, a ‘freak’, the ‘devil’s child’ and ‘filth’. It’s that casual, non-clinical use of the word ‘psychotic’ there that bothers me. People diagnosed as psychotic should not be associated in this inaccurate and highly damaging way with a murderer who is also described as a ‘freak’, ‘filth’ and the ‘devil’s child’ (and may or may not have been diagnosed as psychotic).

Don’t use the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe anyone or anything unless you are writing about someone who has the specific and diagnosed condition of schizophrenia. Casual references to ‘schizophrenic’ opinions, attitudes or behaviour should be avoided. This is because the word is frequently and inaccurately used to describe a type of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviour, and perpetuates a negative and fear-inducing image of people who live with this condition.

Never say someone is in a ‘mental home’: they are in hospital.

I would far rather be called a nutter…

There is no denying that the use of language in relation to people with mental health problems is very tricky indeed. Just look at this range of opinions published a while back on the charity Rethink’s website:

I would far rather be called a nutter, crazy, or a mentalist than a service user. It’s an absolutely ridiculous term, alongside ‘client’ which indicates some sort of business relationship…’

I actually went to see some mental health worker and when I said to her: “And then I went mad,” she actually told me off. I accept the fact that I am mad.’

Words are only words, we attach too much meaning to them. I refer to myself as mental, mad, crazy, loony – I don’t take offence at these words, they are only words. I’ve removed the power of such words in my life.’

I do not give a damn whether I am called a client/patient/service user or whatever. What matters to me … is that I receive the help I need when I need it…’

We have all heard the cry: “I do not care what I am called it is how I am treated that matters.”  Well I do care, and I care very much because how and what I am called has at least as much to do with how I am treated…

All we can do when writing is be aware of this range of opinion, and do our best to ensure our prose is accurate and respectful, and does not fuel negative assumptions and attitudes to mental illness.

Update: February 2013

Rachel Whitehead, press officer at the charity Rethink Mental Illness, argues in The Independent that:

The language used in the media around this (taking medication for mental health problems) is very telling. There is a clear dividing line between those who simply ‘take’ medication, such as people with diabetes, and those who are ‘hooked’ on it – people with mental health problems. Antidepressants in particular are often written about in the context of someone trying desperately to ‘give them up’ as if they’re some kind of bad habit. Read the full article.

Defining autism

According to the National Health Service here in the UK, autism is defined as a serious and lifelong developmental disability. On its own, autism is not a learning disability or a mental health problem.

People with autism usually have difficulties with:

  • social communication
  • social interaction
  • social imagination

However, some people with autism have an accompanying learning disability, learning difficulty or mental health problem.

Read more information here.

Autistic as a term of abuse.

Autism update: December 2012

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

The term ‘Asperger’s disorder‘ will not appear in the DSM-5, the latest revision of the manual, and instead its symptoms will come under the newly added ‘autism spectrum disorder’, which is already used widely. That umbrella diagnosis will include children with severe autism, who often do not talk or interact, as well as those with milder forms.

Read more on this update in the Guardian.


From John Rentoul in The Independent’s Errors and Omissions column:

On Monday, in a report about possible explanations for the inexplicable, namely Adam Lanza’s murder of 26 people in Connecticut, we said: “His brother, Ryan, reportedly told police he thought his brother had a personality disorder, possibly Asperger’s, a form of autism.” Asperger’s syndrome is indeed a mild form of autism. It gives people difficulties with social interaction and can make them come across as odd. But it is not a personality disorder, and it is not associated with violence. We should avoid relaying, without clarification, erroneous speculation of that kind.

December 2012 update: new diagnostic term for children

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

Abnormally bad and frequent temper tantrums will be diagnosed as DMDD, meaning disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Supporters say it will address concerns about too many children being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with powerful psychiatric drugs.

December 2012 update: Gender identity disorder

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

The term ‘gender identity disorder‘, for children and adults who strongly believe they were born the wrong gender, is being replaced with ‘gender dysphoria‘ to remove the stigma attached to the word ‘disorder’.

Read more on this update in the Guardian.

Feisty pensioner fends off burglar

Have you noticed how people of a certain age become ‘feisty’ or ‘game’ or ‘spritely’ or ‘dapper’ or ‘lively’ or ‘nimble’ or ‘alert’ or ‘bright as a button’? Look at this prime example from the Sunday Telegraph:

It was a Friday evening in January when Laurie Leigh, a feisty 73-year-old antique dealer, visited her estate agent after hearing the house she was trying to buy had been withdrawn.

Drop the clichés. If you wouldn’t use these words in connection with a younger person, don’t automatically reach for them to describe an older one.

And note I’m avoiding the phrase ‘old people’. I know it shouldn’t, but it sounds pejorative (probably because of our youth-obsessed culture), as does ‘the elderly’. Prefer ‘older people’.

Don’t describe an incidence of confusion or forgetfulness as a ‘senior moment’. It’s not funny. It is disparaging.

And your Christian name is?

For obvious reasons, avoid the term ‘Christian name’. Prefer ‘first name’.

Sexual preference or sexual orientation?

Sexist children’s books reinforce gender inequality

The dehumanising effect of driving-related metaphors in the UK’s NHS


37 Responses

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  1. Wow, so exhaustive! You are really devoted to the English language.

    P.S.: According to WordPress rules the number of tags and/or categories should not be more than 10-12. So keep them within that limit. 🙂

    It was implemented to prevent tag spamming by spam bloggers who wanted to appear in the global taqs page of WP more frequently.

    • Hi, Vikas – thanks! Also – thanks for the tip re. tags. Much appreciated.


      15/11/2009 at 10:15 am

  2. It is not Down’s syndrome. It is Down syndrome. It was named after a condition that Dr. Down wrote about, not a condition he had. In the case of Lou Gehrig, he actually had the condition, thus Lou Gehrig’s disease is correct.

    Surprising to see anyone still using Down’s. It is no longer used in the US of A by polite and educated people and rarely appears this way in the media.


    10/01/2010 at 3:13 pm

  3. When I’m anointed emperor, I will outlaw all versions of “alumnus.” Not only are the gender and number rules hard to remember, spell, and say, but they’re arguably sexist. Instead, I will decree, it shall be “alum” and “alums” only. That way, when my footme–footservants drive me around in my coach, my blood pressure won’t bubble up when I see a single female in a car whose license-plate frame reads “UCLA Alumni.”

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 6:30 am

    • All hail.

      I posted on this a while back, but I don’t think your blood pressure will be improved, as I went with the Oxford English Dictionary‘s advice that ‘alumni’ can refer to graduates of either sex. Perhaps I sold out there? Or do you mean the notice should have read ‘UCLA alumna’ (for a single female?). But how do you know the cars you see belong to the drivers? Just asking…

      When I’m annointed emperor (in the spring) I will outlaw all car stickers, full stop. First to go will be those that read ‘Mums taxi’ or ‘Dads taxi’ without the possessive apostrophe. Don’t get me started…


      17/01/2010 at 8:11 am

      • Yes, alumna (sorry, I missed your reply before). She’s not a group of men or a mixed group.

        Michael Farrell

        01/02/2010 at 9:45 pm

  4. 36 Hours in Whistler, British Columbia
    The valley is home to something else that makes it particularly welcoming to Olympic athletes: a global citizenry, ranging from old-school hippies to French-babbling Québécois.

    “French-babbling”?? Would they write “English-babbling”?
    Just asking…

    Maggie Manning

    18/01/2010 at 7:19 pm

    • Yes – very good point. Swapping one word for another of the same type in this way can be very revealing of often unintended racist or offensive language. Here’s another example of the same technique – in this case, demonstrating the use of a gratuitous reference to someone’s sexuality.

      Thanks for this, Maggie – very interesting.


      18/01/2010 at 8:08 pm

    • Thank you for questioning that. I think in this context ‘babble’ or put-downs like that, are used defensively by people who don’t understand French and feel an inherent suspicion that the ‘babblers’ may be ‘babbling’ about them. Granted, it is rude to conduct a conversation in another language in front of people who don’t understand that language. However, some people feel affronted if people within earshot speak a language they don’t know. It is entirely probable that a Québecois commentator would describe Canadian Anglophones as ‘babbling’, so I suspect it’s a general human propensity for distrust of that which we don’t understand, rather then one that can be attributed to a particular ethnicity or culture.

      Jo-Anne Moore

      10/03/2010 at 12:19 am

  5. […] Am I allowed to say that ? […]

  6. Excellent list, thanks. Particularly liked “The phrase ‘man and wife’ is an interesting one, the former being a person and the latter a role”.


    25/03/2010 at 3:59 pm

    • Hi, Milly – welcome to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to comment and I’m glad you found this post interesting.


      25/03/2010 at 4:07 pm

  7. Hi Deborah…I loved your blog! I am a counselling lecturer and specialise in domestic abuse/internalised sexism. I find myself (on a daily basis) Helping people to look at their self-talk and self-worth issues. Female thinking/self talk (in general)is connected to inferiority complex as women (although most before counselling would not realise that this is how they think, and would in some/most cases hotly deny that they are affected by the subliminal messaging all around) until we look at the devestation and oppression that this thinking is causing (backed up by society).
    Males are (generally) obssessed with behaviour and image connected in some ways to ‘not being macho enough’ or blaming their mothers/wives/girlfriends. This is also connected to subliminal messaging and none so insidious as the written word.
    Your point is an important one and if we want to ‘heal’ as a people, we need to understand this!


    08/06/2010 at 4:55 pm

    • Hi, Mandy — thanks so much for your kind words and for taking the time to comment here. You are very welcome to Wordwatch. Thanks also for your insightful and interesting comments. The written word can, indeed, be insidious.


      08/06/2010 at 5:23 pm

  8. What is the proper word/phrase for ‘manpower’?


    24/01/2011 at 2:20 pm

    • Hi, Vikas!

      There are a number of alternatives depending on the type of sentence you are writing:
      Staffing (as in ‘staffing levels’)
      Labour force

      Hope that helps?

      Thanks for your interesting question. I think you’re my old friend Vikas? (I can’t tell without the pic of you). If so, hope you’re well, and good to see you here again.


      24/01/2011 at 2:34 pm

      • Yes, I am the same Vikas. This is a different mail id not attached to any pic.

        I was almost unable to think of these options because I was thinking in terms of man:human (as in mankind: humankind)! Thanks.

        PS:I am fine; just a bit confused in life.


        24/01/2011 at 5:32 pm

        • Hi, Vikas — I’m glad it’s you!

          I’m also glad to hear you’re OK – but sorry about the confusion. 😦 That doesn’t sound like you. Hope things improve for you before too long.


          24/01/2011 at 5:37 pm

  9. An excellent must-read discussion about various terms used to describe disabled people:


    Plus, really? Handicapable? When someone says that about me, I feel they don’t see me as a serious adult. My mind’s eye sees the incessantly smiling face and artificially cheery voice. “She’s not disabled; she’s handicapable!” And all the things that come with my impairment are elided into a cheerful grin. I’m six years old again.


    02/02/2011 at 12:17 pm

    • For me, loss is loss and nothing much is gained by calling it a nicer name. Quadriplegic. Disabled. It doesn’t matter? My wheelchair does not define me as a woman. I am proud of who I am.

      PS. I love your passion for words and the English language. I have learned so much from reading your blogs. Keep them coming.

      Tracy Todd

      02/02/2011 at 2:57 pm

      • Hi, Tracy

        So lovely to see you here, and thank you again for alerting me to the previously mentioned link about language and disability; I hope the piece reaches a wide audience.

        Also, I do appreciate your comments about my blog. I can’t recommend yours highly enough.


        02/02/2011 at 3:05 pm

  10. From the After Deadline column in The New York Times:

    In a five-page letter to state education officials, Mr. Bloomberg mentioned Joel I. Klein’s every possible brush with education, including his time at the Justice Department, his speeches on the rights of the mentally ill, and even a plaque on his high school’s wall of fame.

    As with “the disabled,” this use of “the mentally ill” as a noun strikes many readers as insensitive or dehumanizing. When practical, “people with mental illness,” “mentally ill people” or similar phrases are preferable.


    09/03/2011 at 8:55 am

  11. Thought-provoking post from the Wheelchair Dancer blog. Excerpt:

    Compare these two awesome paragraphs from Storm Reading by Neil Marcus:

    The playwright is afflicted with “generalized dystonia,” (dystonia musculorum deformans), the most severe and painful form of this disorder. It denies his ability to speak, stand, walk and/or control sudden and sometimes bizarre movements.

    Playwright Neil Marcus has flourishing dystonia, a neurological condition which allows him to leap and soar and twist and turn constantly in public, thus challenging stereotypes of every sort and making him very interesting to watch and sit next to during lunch hour. It rides him like a roller coaster at times.


    02/05/2011 at 11:26 am

  12. Very interesting, not only has this made me aware of issues like these when writing but also on how to treat people in life also.

    Few points:

    1. I definitely agree about the female suicide bomber point. Historically, suicide bombers are male and anything that goes against the grain is made into huge news. I can imagine the news producers: “What! A FEMALE suicide bomber! That’s HUGE news!”. It would be great if the female suicide bomber wasn’t mentioned.

    2. When you talk about the use of Black, Ethnic and Minority communities and the way it’s used in the media. Would the same not apply when talking about the Deaf Community? (Also to me putting the D and C in capitals feels weird, but if you say it’s correct, I trust you!). I’m assuming that deaf people would feel uncomfortable being labelled as part of a community, surely they’d want to be part of the community as a whole rather than being shoe horned into the deaf community?

    3. Great information on the learning disability/learning disability and the subsequent sections. You never know whenever you’re writing that you might come across something like this and the smallest mistake might cause upset to someone else. It’s incredible to think on following on from your examples that reporters can be so insensitive.

    By the way, I’m intending to go through all of your blog posts (will take me a while but it will be worth it getting to the top of the mountain!) and soak up the information.


    13/05/2011 at 2:53 am

    • Hi, Aky — thank you very much for your very interesting and thoughtful comments. I’m glad you found this useful.

      Re. female suicide bombers: I researched this a while back and found that female suicide bombers are, in fact, not as rare as is often assumed. There have been female suicide bombers for at least a quarter of a century. Here’s a short article from 2007: http://www.hnn.us/articles/125433.html

      With regard to being labelled as part of the Deaf Community (again, thank you for this interesting point), this can be a tricky area. Some deaf people consider themselves part of the Deaf Community and others do not. I know deaf/hearing impaired people who haven’t even heard of the Deaf Community, and would not be the slightest bit interested in belonging to it; they live fully in the hearing world. Others are very much part of the Deaf Community, which is strongly associated with the use of British Sign Language. As the chair of the BDA says on the BDA website:

      I look forward to taking the organisation into the New Era, with a focus on an empowered Deaf Community and campaigning on the issues related to Deaf Culture, Deaf Identity and, most importantly, British Sign Language.”

      (Btw — I don’t think ‘New Era’, ‘Culture’, or ‘Identity’ should be capped there. Although, I’m open to offers re. the latter two.)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and raise these issues — and thank you for your kind words about the blog. I do appreciate it.


      13/05/2011 at 10:47 am

  13. From the Guardian‘s ‘Mind Your Language’ blog: ‘The feminisation of madness is crazy’. Excerpt:

    The distinct feminisation of madness in our language is an insane semantic state of affairs. It’s an unsavoury tradition, stretching back through literature and language, that obscures the way women are viewed and discussed to this day. Delving back into etymology and fiction – and a consideration of how these linguistic roots have branched into a modern weed of unfairness – can help us better understand the social consequences of the words we choose.

    Read the article in full:


    22/03/2012 at 6:01 pm

  14. From Guy Keleny in The Independent‘s Errors & Omissions column:

    “The granny with Sir Humphrey in her crosshairs” was the headline on the Monday Interview, the subject of which was Margaret Hodge MP, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who is gunning for Whitehall mandarins.

    There is one thing to say in favour of the word “granny”: Ms Hodge is indeed a grandmother, so it is factually correct. The rest is all bad. Her status as a grandmother has no relevance to the story; to mention it is wildly sexist. No one would dream of labelling a male senior MP “grandad”, except in relation to a story about his grandchildren. Further, we have here a stereotype being used to set up a false contradiction. A “granny”, as everybody knows, is a sweet old lady who dispenses sweeties, sympathy and good advice. Chairmen of the PAC, on the other hand, are very tough, clever men in suits and ties. So calling Hodge a “granny” suggests that there is an interesting contrast between her family status and her political role. In fact, there isn’t.


    17/04/2012 at 6:09 pm

  15. ” By the way, the phrase ‘minority ethnic’ is, to my ears, a strange inversion of ‘ethnic minority. The latter seems to make  more sense and is the one I use.”

    So you have discretion to say ethnic minority instead of minority ethnic? Lucky you. When I was given compulsory racial awareness training by the NHS health authority where I was head of head of communications I was taught that minority ethnic is correct and ethnic minority is unacceptable. People who did use innoccuous but forbidden expressions at my organization would be taken to task by the management, and all the careerists were most zealous about the linguistic purity. The whites were always the worst.

    Can you begin to understand that PC is not politeness or humanity? It is a means of exercising political power through a shifting system of shibboleths. People of goodwill had already ceased calling non-whites words beginning with N before PC was invented. You can tell PC is not ‘just politeness’ because you don’t lose you job or academic tenure over one failure of politness, but you can over one transgression of PC.

    Congratulations on a high quality website.

    Best wishes.


    • Hi, Christie

      Many thanks for this interesting analysis and for your kind words which I value.

      Re. your points: I too have worked for organisations that have arbitrarily banned some words and enforced the use of others for no good reason (‘minority ethnic’ being a good example). Of course, if your employer dictates that you should use ‘minority ethnic’ and not ‘ethnic minority’, there’s little you can do about it. (I had a similar experience when working for a local council with the term ‘learning disability’ which literally overnight became — to the council — unacceptable and had to be replaced with ‘learning difficulty’.)

      The use of ‘politically correct’ language (for want of a better term) is a very complex area and can, as you say, be a way of exercising political power in a negative way. Plus, as I’ve said elsewhere, some people who are sharp enough to ‘talk the talk’ still have a long way to go in changing their actual behaviour and thought processes, while others, who don’t have a sexist or racist bone in their body, still use outdated terms that might make others cringe.

      Of course, many people found the ‘N’ word repellent before the dawn of ‘politically correct’ language. However, it has taken a lot of (often derided) hard work since then to raise awareness of how language can be used to perpetuate inequality and unhelpful assumptions, often in very subtle ways.

      Certainly, as you say, ‘political correctness’ becomes more sinister when used as a weapon to beat people with. My concern is to suggest alternative ways of using language to include rather than exclude; to avoid subliminal negative messages; and to minimise unthinking offense. Using language differently can help us think differently and challenge old and stale ideas. It’s an amazingly powerful tool — in good and, as you say, bad ways. I try to concentrate on the good!

      Thanks again, much appreciated.


      23/02/2013 at 9:08 am

  16. These issues don’t go away *sigh*… the commenter’s question as quoted in the final par below says it all…

    From the Guardian today:

    Oh dear! Today’s front page story in the Sunday Times about a British professor leading a crusade against human trafficking was, to say the least, infelicitous:

    “Grandmother, 71, tackles slave traffickers for the Pope”

    Grandmother! Is that the way to describe Margaret Archer, a distinguished sociologist who heads the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences?

    I note that the copy also referred to her as a grandmother and an inside story on “the most senior woman in the Vatican” repeated the sexist (and ageist) description.

    As a commenter to the paper’s website remarked: “I wonder whether a 71-year-old man with similar qualifications would be headlined as a grandfather.”



    20/04/2014 at 2:40 pm

  17. The Guardian readers’ editor on… unthinkingly sexist descriptions of women.


    30/01/2015 at 6:12 pm

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