We are called to be aware of our own social locations and what they enable us to see—but also what we are likely to miss. Language usage outside of the academy may vary, as may usage according to whether the arena is public or private, formal or informal. This document guides practices within the EMU community.
1. Be aware that a person’s identities are complex rather than reducing an individual to one characteristic or part of that person’s identity.
Avoid redundant or irrelevant use of gendered, or racial or other referents.
Speak of persons with disabilities rather than disabled persons or the disabled. Speak of persons without legal documentation rather than illegal persons. Avoid labeling a person with an illness or a mental illness. A person is not an illness. Speak to the person first, and then the illness.
Speak of persons with mentally ill experiences or challenges or diagnosis; not a bipolar person, but persons living with bipolar disorder; not drug/alcohol abusers but persons with substance use challenges; not a diabetic but persons with diabetes.
Survivors is preferred to victims.
2. Draw attention to a person’s identifying characteristics only if it is relevant to the situation at hand.
Typically discussion of an individual’s physical characteristics tends to reinforce stereotypes or turn groups into sexualized beings rather than fully human persons.
Examples: Avoid emphasizing women’s physical features or reproductive capacities outside of relevant contexts. Do not assume that women function primarily as caregivers (or that men do not). Use “uses a wheelchair” rather than “is confined to a wheelchair” and only if wheelchair use is relevant to the topic. In all cases, ask: Are the characteristics described truly relevant to the situation under discussion?
3. Use the terms that those you are discussing will use to describe themselves to others, recognizing that such terms may change over time.
Use Inuit rather than Eskimo. However, be aware of euphemistic language that individuals and groups use to hide realities. For instance, use genocide rather than ethnic cleansing.
Gender-neutral pronouns (s/he, her/him, zie, hir) are preferred to he when talking about a group of people that includes men, women and non-gender-identifying persons. Often using a plural rather than a singular sentence construction will enable a smoother read. Use plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) instead of singular forms to avoid awkward constructions.
Avoid using accident unless the incident is truly random. For example, car crash is preferred to car accident as most of these events involve poor road design and/or driver error.
4. Avoid using binary opposites to describe humans, but if you must do so, make the pair symmetrical.
Consider whether two groups capture the complexity of human experience you are describing. For example, using the pairs men and women and brothers and sisters exclude persons of nonbinary gender, so human and siblings are usually preferred.
Across difference, avoid using language that minimizes one person or group compared to the other.
Examples: Use Ms. Janet Chao and Mr. Thomas Jones, or Chao and Jones rather than Janet and Jones.
5. Avoid assuming that men are the norm or standard, and others are exceptions.
Typically, use humankind rather than mankind, human rather than man, and artificial or unnatural rather than manmade. Use chairperson rather than chairman, first-year student rather than freshman. Avoid “guys” for a mixed group or group of women. Take note of when and how statistics and standards were created. For example, height and weight charts used to measure obesity are often based on an average of men taken in the 1950s. Is it then fair to measure women as obese or overweight using these measures?
6. Avoid assuming that white people are the norm or standard, and others are exceptions.
Example: Be aware of terms like real Americans or the use of we, us and our when only white people are meant.
7. Use titles, or not, based on the culture of the society in which a person is living or visiting.
Formal titles may be proper in a society or setting that is more structured, and titles may be viewed as unnecessary in a society that is less formal. Be aware of patterns of interaction and adapting to them. Use titles or not based upon the person being addressed.
8. Use materials from groups who have been marginalized…
…in teaching, classroom discussions, research design and worship.
Due to the rapidly changing nature of best practices, please contact the Provost’s Office with suggestions for revisions to this document.
* Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Everyday Writer, 6th edition, Andrea A. Lunsford (NYC: Bedford St. Martin's). Copyright 2017.