Wordwatch Towers

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

An epileptic or a person with epilepsy?

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They were all at it a couple of days ago: the Daily Mail, the Guardian (very surprisingly) and even Radio 4 news. But is it ever OK to refer to someone as ‘an epileptic’, ‘an epileptic man’, or even, as the online Daily Mail headline had it:

Epileptic who mowed down British couple after having fit at wheel of dustbin lorry is jailed for at least 20 years

I’m not defending this man who culpably chose not to take his medication, but the terrible circumstances of this case do not make it OK to start referring to someone as ‘an epileptic’.

I also wondered about the use of that word ‘fit’. Should ‘seizure’ always be preferred? I asked the charitable organisation Epilepsy Action and here’s the reply:

“You are quite right, we don’t call people ‘epileptics’. It’s important to look at the person before the medical condition, therefore we prefer ‘people with epilepsy’.  In terms of whether to use the term ‘seizure’ or ‘fit’, this is more difficult. As professionals, we encourage people to use the term seizure. However, if we are talking with people who call their seizures fits, then we mirror their language. Also, people with learning disabilities, many of whom have epilepsy, tend to call their seizures fits. We respect that. So, I guess, it depends who you are writing for, as to which term you use.”

No-nonsense guide to politically correct writing

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