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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: pdschmitt

wheelchair

It is acceptable to describe a person as someone who uses a wheelchair, followed by an explanation of why the equipment is required. Avoid confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound as these terms describe a person only in relationship to a piece of equipment.

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

suicide

Avoid using the phrase committed suicide. Alternate phrases include killed himself, took her own life, or died by suicide. The verb commit with suicide can imply a criminal act. Laws against suicide have been repealed in the United States and many other places.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

mental illness

Do not describe an individual as having a mental illness unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced. Mental illness is a general term. Specific conditions are disorders and should be used whenever possible. Avoid terms such as the mentally ill. Instead: people with mental illnesses.

Do not use derogatory terms, such as insane, crazy/crazed, nuts, or deranged, unless they are part of a quotation that is essential to the story. Avoid using mental health terms to describe unrelated issues. Don’t say that an awards show, for example, was schizophrenic.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

deaf

Deaf should be used as an adjective, not as a noun; it describes a person with profound or complete hearing loss.

Many people do not consider being deaf or having hearing loss as a disability. Instead, deafness is often considered a culture. Some people with mild or moderate hearing loss may affiliate themselves with the deaf community and prefer to be referred to as deaf instead of hard of hearing. Alternatively, some who are profoundly deaf may prefer the term hard of hearing.

When quoting or paraphrasing a person who has signed their responses, it’s appropriate on first reference to indicate that the responses were signed. It’s acceptable to use the word said in subsequent references.

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

chronic disease/illness

When referring to a person with a chronic illness, only refer to the condition if it is pertinent to the story you are confident there is a medical diagnosis. Ask your sources how they want to be described and, when in doubt, consider using people-first language, such as person with diabetes rather than a diabetic.

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

blind

Use blind only when the person has complete loss of sight and legally blind when the person has almost complete loss of sight. Other terms also may be acceptable. It is best to ask your sources what terms they prefer and take that into consideration. Commonly used terms include: limited vision, low vision, and visually impaired (but similar to the term hearing impaired, some may object to it because it describes the condition in terms of a deficiency).

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

autism

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of complex disorders related to brain development, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include difficulties in communication, impaired social interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. However, symptoms vary across the spectrum. Many experts classify autism as a developmental disability.

Opinions vary on how to refer to someone with autism. Some people with autism prefer being referred to as autistic or an autistic person. Others object to using autistic as an adjective. Ask individuals how they prefer to be described.

Refer to someone as having autistic spectrum disorder only if the information is relevant to the story and if you are confident there is a medical diagnosis.

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

afflicted with/stricken with/suffers from/victim of

These terms carry the assumption that a person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life. Not every person with a disability suffers, is a victim, or is stricken. It is preferable to use neutral language when describing a person who has a disability, simply stating the facts about the nature of the disability. For example: He has muscular dystrophy.

(Source: Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism)

addiction

A treatable disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior. Drug and alcohol use can cause changes in the brain that lead to compulsive use, despite damage incurred to a person’s health and relationships. Genetics, mental illness, and other factors make certain people susceptible to addiction.

Addiction is the preferred term. The term substance use disorder is preferred by some health professionals and is acceptable in some uses, such as in quotations or scientific contexts. Alcoholism is acceptable for addiction to alcohol.

Avoid words like abuse or problem in favor of the word use with an appropriate modifier such as risky, unhealthy, excessive, or heavy. Misuse is also acceptable. Avoid alcoholic, addict, user, and abuser unless individuals prefer those terms for themselves or if they occur in quotations or names of organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Avoid derogatory terminology such as junkie, drunk, or crackhead unless in quotations. Avoid describing sobriety as clean unless in quotations, since it implies a previous state of dirtiness instead of disease.

Not all compulsive behaviors, including shopping, eating, and sex, are considered addictions. Gambling is the only one classified as an addiction in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual. The World Health Organization says excessive video gaming can be an addiction.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

disabilities (coverage of)

The terms disabilities and disabled include a broad range of physical and mental conditions both visible and invisible. People’s perceptions of disabilities vary widely. Use care and precision when writing about disabilities and people with disabilities, considering the impact of specific words and the preferences of the people you are writing about.

Avoid writing that implies ableism: the belief that typical abilities — those of people who aren’t disabled — are superior. Ableism is a concept similar to racism, sexism, and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations, and demeaning views and language. It is a form of discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.

Do not describe an individual as having a disability unless it is clearly pertinent to the story. For example: Merritt, who is blind and walks with the help of a guide dog, said she is pleased with the city’s walkway improvements. But not: Zhang, who has paraplegia, is a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Be specific about the type of disability, or symptoms. For example: The woman said the airline kicked her family off a plane after her three-year-old, who has autism, refused to wear a mask. She said her son became upset because he does not like to have his face touched.

When possible, ask people how they want to be described. Some people view their disability as central to their identity, and use identity-first language such as an autistic woman or an autistic. Others prefer person-first language such as a woman with autism or a woman who has autism. In describing groups of people, or when individual preferences can’t be determined, use person-first language.

In general, refer to a disability only if relevant to the story, and if a medical diagnosis has been made or the person uses the term. If relatives or others use the term, ask how they know, then consider carefully whether to include the information.

Avoid the term handicap for a disability or handicapped for a person.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

singular they (use of)

In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.

Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner). Examples of rewording:

  • All the class members raised their hands (instead of everyone raised their hands)
  • The foundation gave grants to anyone who lost a job this year (instead of anyone who lost their job).
  • Police said the victim would be identified after relatives are notified (instead of after their relatives are notified or after his or her relatives are notified).
  • Lottery officials said the winner could claim the prize Tuesday (instead of their or his or her prize).

In stories about people who identify as neither a man or a woman or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person. Examples of rewording:

  • Hendricks said the new job is a thrill (instead of Hendricks said Hendricks is thrilled about the new job or Hendricks said they are thrilled about the new job).
  • Lowry’s partner is Dana Adams, an antiques dealer. They bought a house last year (instead of Lowry and Lowry’s partner bought a house last year or Lowry and their partner bought a house last year).

When they is used in the singular, it takes a plural verb: Taylor said they need a new car. Again, be sure it’s clear from the context that only one person is involved.

(Note for UW­–Madison communicators: Additional techniques for achieving gender neutrality in your writing can be found in Section 5.255 of the Chicago Manual of Style.)

(Source: AP Stylebook)

gender-neutral language (use of)

In general, use terms that can apply to any gender. Such language aims to treat people equally and is inclusive of people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female.

Balance these aims with common sense, respect for the language, and an understanding that gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language is evolving and in some cases is challenging to achieve.

Consider any word or term that has the effect of emphasizing one gender over another. Is there another word that could be substituted? For example: search instead of manhunt. Police officer instead of policeman. Door attendant instead of doorman. A true gender-neutral noun often presents itself easily: chair or chairperson, firefighter, workforce. In other cases, a noun may technically not be gender-neutral but instead be a masculine noun that assumes the generic case under English language convention: actor, host. In general, use terms such as chair or chairperson, councilperson or council member, and spokesperson unless the -man or -woman terms are specified by an organization. While some -person constructions, such as chairperson and spokesperson, are commonly used, avoid tortured or unfamiliar constructions such as snowperson, baseperson, or freshperson.

(Note for UW­–Madison communicators: Additional techniques for achieving gender neutrality in your writing can be found in Section 5.255 of the Chicago Manual of Style.)

(Source: AP Stylebook)

pronouns (use of)

Use the pronoun that matches the person’s authentic gender. A person who identifies as a certain gender, whether or not that person has taken hormones or undergone surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender. If you are not certain which pronoun to use, ask the person, “What pronouns do you use?”

(Note for UW­–Madison communicators: If a person uses pronouns that are not familiar to most readers [such as xe or ze], include an explanation on first reference.)

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

LGBT, LGBTQ

(Adjective) Acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning and/or queer. In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters explained. I generally stands for intersex, and A can stand for asexual (a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction), ally (some activists decry this use of the abbreviation for a person who is not LGBT but who actively supports LGBT communities), or both. Use of LGBT or LGBTQ is best as an adjective and an umbrella term. Don’t use it, for instance, when the group you’re referring to is limited to bisexuals.

(Source: AP Stylebook) 

queer

An adjective used by some people, particularly younger people, whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual (e.g., queer person, queer woman). Typically, for those who identify as queer, the terms lesbian, gay, and bisexual are perceived to be too limiting. Once considered a pejorative term, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBT people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBT community.

The term should only be used for people or organizations that use queer to identify themselves. Do not use it when intended as a slur.

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide, AP Stylebook)

homosexual, homosexuality

Avoid identifying gay people as homosexuals, an outdated term considered derogatory and offensive to many lesbian and gay people.

Gay or lesbian is preferred as an adjective (for example: a gay man); homosexuality is acceptable when an umbrella term is needed. Avoid homosexual as a noun.

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide, AP Stylebook)

heterosexual

In males, a sexual orientation that describes attraction to females, and vice versa. Straight is acceptable. Transgender people can be heterosexual.

Avoid identifying gay people as homosexuals, an outdated term considered derogatory and offensive to many lesbian and gay people.

(Source: AP Stylebook, GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

asexual

Describes people who don’t experience sexual attraction, though they may feel other types of attraction, such as romantic or aesthetic. Not synonymous with and does not assume celibacy.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

bisexual

Describes people attracted to more than one gender. Some people prefer pansexual, which describes people attracted to others regardless of their gender.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

gay, lesbian

Used to describe people attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women.

Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to sexual preference or to a gay or alternative lifestyle.

Gays is acceptable as a plural noun when necessary, but do not use the singular gay as a noun. Lesbian is acceptable as a noun in singular or plural form.

Avoid identifying gay people as homosexuals, an outdated term considered derogatory and offensive to many lesbian and gay people.

(Source: AP Stylebook, GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

sexual orientation

An individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or different gender, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (straight) orientations.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a straight woman.

Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to sexual preference or to a gay or alternative lifestyle.

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide, AP Stylebook)

sex reassignment, gender confirmation

The treatments, surgeries, and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, genderqueer, bigender, agender

Gender non-conforming is acceptable in broad references as a term for people who do not conform to gender expectations. (Acceptable use: The group is providing scholarships for gender-nonconforming students.)

Nonbinary and genderqueer are terms used by some people who experience their gender identity as falling outside the categories of man and woman. They are not synonyms for transgender and should only be used if someone self-identifies as nonbinary or genderqueer.

Explain the terms in a story if the context doesn’t make it clear.

Similar guidance goes for other terms like bigender (people who identify as a combination of two genders) and agender (people who identify as having no gender).

(Source: AP Stylebook, GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

transition

The processes transgender people go through to match their gender identity, which may include sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures, but not necessarily. (Acceptable uses: Washington is transitioning while helping his daughter consider universities. Chamberlain’s family offered support during her transition.)

Avoid the phrase sex change.

Altering one’s birth sex is not a one-step procedure; it is a complex process that occurs over a long period of time. Transition can include some or all of the following personal, medical, and legal steps: telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery. The exact steps involved in transition vary from person to person.

(Sources: AP Stylebook, GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

cisgender

Describes people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth; that is, not transgender. Explain (on first reference) if necessary.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

transgender

Describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were identified as having at birth. Does not require what are often known as sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures. Identify people as transgender only if pertinent, and use the name by which they live publicly. Generally, avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, since it’s an unnecessary detail and excludes intersex babies.

The shorthand trans is acceptable on second reference and in headlines.

Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.

Do not use as a noun, such as referring to someone as a transgender, or use the term transgendered. (Instead, as an adjective: Bernard is a transgender man. Christina is transgender.) Not synonymous with terms like cross-dresser or drag queen, which do not have to do with gender identity. Do not use the outdated term transsexual. Avoid derogatory terms such as tranny.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

intersex

Describes people born with genitalia, chromosomes, or reproductive organs that don’t fit typical definitions for males or females.

Avoid the outdated and derogatory term hermaphrodite. While some people can have an intersex condition and also identify as transgender, the two are separate and should not be conflated.

(Source: AP Stylebook, GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

gender identity

A person’s internal, deeply held sense of their gender. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices (e.g., nonbinary and genderqueer).

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

gender

Gender is not synonymous with sexGender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to botheither, or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

sex

The classification of a person as male or female. At birth, infants are assigned a sex, usually based on the appearance of their external anatomy.

(Source: GLAAD Media Reference Guide)

APIDA

Stands for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American. UW–Madison’s APIDA Student Center is one of several identity centers housed within the Multicultural Student Center. Desi is a term used by some who identify as South Asian or have a South Asian heritage. It can include the countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and sometimes Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Tibet.

undocumented

Use undocumented to refer to a group of people or an individual who does not have documentation required for legal immigration or residence, and only when relevant to the story and with explicit permission from a group or individual. For example, undocumented immigrants or an undocumented student. Avoid illegal or alien.

people of color

The term is acceptable when necessary in broad references to multiple races other than white: We will hire more people of color. Nine playwrights of color collaborated on the script.

Be aware, however, that many people of various races object to the term for various reasons, including that it lumps together into one monolithic group anyone who isn’t white. Be specific whenever possible by referring to, for instance, Black Americans, Chinese Americans, or members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

BIPOC

An emerging acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. Some feel the term is more appropriate than people of color because it acknowledges the varying levels of injustice experienced by different groups. In these instances, be sure to ask individuals or groups how they prefer to be identified.

(Source: University of Iowa Style Race and Ethnicity Guide)

Indigenous

Descendants of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. Practicing unique traditions, Indigenous people retain social, cultural, economic, and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live.

Capitalize this term used to refer to original inhabitants of a place. Aboriginal leaders welcomed a new era of Indigenous relations in Australia. Bolivia’s Indigenous peoples represent some 62 percent of the population.

(Sources: United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, AP Stylebook)

American Indians, Native Americans

Both are acceptable terms in general references for those in the U.S. when referring to two or more people of different tribal affiliations. For individuals, use the name of the tribe; if that information is not immediately available, try to obtain it. He is a Navajo commissioner. She is a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Native American gained traction in the 1960s for American Indians and Alaska Natives. Over time, Native American has expanded to include all Native people of the continental United States and some in Alaska. Native American and American Indian can be used interchangeably; however, the term is used only to describe groups — two or more individuals of different tribal affiliation. Always identify people by their preferred tribal affiliation when reporting on individuals or individual tribes.

Tribal membership is required by the federal government, and each tribe sets its own membership requirements for enrolled citizens. However, enrollment is not the only factor that determines whether someone is American Indian. Connection to one’s tribal community, culture, heritage, language, and history is also important. Additionally, some American Indians may possess blood quantum from several tribes, yet are not enrolled because they do not meet any single tribe’s enrollment criteria.

Tribe, nation, community, and band describe various sociopolitical units; usage also varies based on personal or group preference.

For more guidance, visit the Native American Journalists Association website.

(Sources: AP Stylebook, Native American Journalists Association, Wisconsin First Nations)

Asian American

No hyphen (noun or adjective). Acceptable for an American of Asian descent. When possible, refer to a person’s country of origin or follow the person’s preference. For example: Filipino American or Indian American.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

African American

No hyphen (noun or adjective). Acceptable for an American Black person of African descent. Not necessarily interchangeable with Black. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow a person’s preference.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

Black

Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.

African American is not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known, and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.

Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.

(Source: AP Stylebook)

Latino/a/x, Hispanic, Chicano

Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective for a person from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. Latina is the feminine form. Some prefer the recently coined gender-neutral term Latinx, which should be confined to quotations, names of organizations, or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation. For groups of women, use the plural Latinas; for groups of men or of mixed gender, use the plural Latinos.

Hispanic refers to a person from — or whose ancestors were from — a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Latino, Latina, or Latinx are sometimes preferred. Follow the person’s preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Mexican American.

Chicano is a term that Mexican Americans in the U.S. Southwest sometimes use to describe their heritage. Use only if it is a person’s preference.

(Source: AP Stylebook)