Inclusive Writing: How to Use Person-First Language

November 13, 2020
Inclusive writing and inclusive language are topics that have become more popular among editors and writers, and for good reason—people want their readers to feel seen and respected. So how do you write inclusively when there are so many opinions out there? There’s no one answer, so this lesson is the start of a series about how to keep your writing inclusive—beginning with person-first language.

The Rosh Review copy editing team has weekly meetings to discuss issues that pop up as we’re working, from punctuation, grammar, and spelling (proud word nerds here!) to how to rephrase potentially problematic or offensive wording. We take feedback seriously, and when someone writes in to suggest language updates, we discuss the appropriate changes to make both going forward and retroactively. 

Because Qbank questions discuss hypothetical patients in a medical setting, these patients are often dealing with diseases, disorders, and disabilities. And even though these aren’t real people, it’s still important to show them respect, much as you would want to be treated in a doctor’s office yourself.

So what does this look like? To start, we follow the AMA Manual of Style’s recommendation of putting the person first when describing a disease, disorder, or disability. Here’s the beginning of a sentence that does not use person-first language:

A 25-year-old diabetic man presents to the office with…

In this example, the patient is mentioned after his diabetes. So what? Isn’t diabetic an adjective just like brunette or tall? Not quite. While being brunette or tall is an inherent part of someone’s physical presentation, “diabetic” labels this man and equates him with the condition. If you were describing someone, would you say “He’s the diabetic guy”? That’s not going to help anyone pick him out of a crowd. Instead, you might say “He wears glasses and has curly hair.”

So how can you change this patient’s description to focus on the person first? Do literally that—mention the person before you mention the condition: 

A 25-year-old man with diabetes presents to the office with…

Now the patient is described as a 25-year-old man, and he happens to have diabetes. This is a small change, and some may argue that it’s unnecessary and makes sentences wordier, but this small change does something big: it puts the person’s humanity before their medical condition. Rather than defining the patient as a diabetic and then adding further info about him, his existence is put first.

Person-first language is applicable to all sorts of labels. Instead of the terms in red, try the wording in green:

An alcoholic /
An alcohol abuser

A person with alcohol use disorder
A person who excessively uses alcohol

A stroke victim

A person who has had a stroke

The homeless

People who don’t have housing People who are experiencing homelessness

A mentally ill person

A person with mental illness

The list goes on. However, pay attention to a person’s or group’s preference—in some cases, identity-first language might be better. For instance, someone might prefer being called an “autistic woman” rather than “a woman with autism” because she considers autism an inherent part of her being. But others in the community might feel that person-first language is more appropriate. Know your audience, and just remember to be respectful and refer to people based on their preferences. 

Part of the job as an editor or writer is to pay attention to how language evolves over time. Does it take some getting used to? Sometimes. But isn’t it worth it to put in the effort and learn (inevitably making mistakes along the way) if it means people feel seen, included, and respected? Plus it will make you more aware of how you think of and refer to people in everyday language—not just at work.

Person-first language is just one example of inclusive language—there are many other ways to avoid inadvertently discriminating against people in your writing that I’ll tackle over time. And if you have any questions or suggestions, let me know!

By Laura Wilkinson

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