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Chapter 8: Usage

Guidelines for Writing about People

By writing in a way that engages readers, encouraging them to absorb your content and put it to use, it is possible to communicate social work–related information, while also improving human lives. Eliminating the old “shorthand” for describing people will necessarily add some length to a paper substituting members of racial and ethnic groups for minorities or people with disabilities for the disabled adds words but it is more accurate and eliminates bias.

  • Seek and use the preference of the people about whom you are writing. Ask people you work with how they prefer to be described, and use the terms they give you. If people within a group disagree on preference, report the different terms and try to use the one most often used within the group.

NASW Press, for example, does not object to using alternate terms, such as “Black” and “African American,” within an article or chapter as long as the content is clearly written so readers are not confused. Be sensitive to real preferences and do not adopt descriptions that may have been imposed on people, such as “senior citizens.”

  • Be as specific as possible. Whenever possible, use specific racial or ethnic identities instead of collecting different groups under a general heading. For example, if you have studied work experiences among Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans, report on these three groups, rather than lumping them together as “Hispanics.”
  • Describe people in positive terms. Describe what people are, rather than what they are not. For example, do not use the terms “nonwhite” or “nonparticipant.”
  • Remember that you are writing about people. Help the reader see that you are writing about people, not subjects or objects. Use the terms sample or subject for statistics, and describe participants as respondents, participants, workers, and so forth. Keep in mind that a group of 100 people who share certain characteristics also have many traits that are unique to them as individuals, even if these traits are not included in your report. Imagine you are a member of the group about whom you are writing and see how you would react to the terms you have used to describe them.
  • Avoid using terms that label people. When adjectives that describe a person’s condition or status are used as nouns, they become labels that often connote a derogatory intent (even if there is no such actual intent). For example, people who do not earn enough money to provide for their needs are often referred to collectively as the poor. Use “poor people” if you are referring to them in the aggregate. People who have lived a long time become the elderly or the aged. If you cannot use specific ages or age ranges, use terms like “elderly people” or “older people.” Do not refer to people with disabilities as the disabled or the handicapped. Note that the use of the article the in front of a noun is a good warning sign that you may be using a label.


Use “boy” or “girl” only for children and adolescents, though for high school students, “young man” or “young woman” may be preferable. Do not use terms like “senior citizen,” “oldster,” or “graybeard” for people older than 65. Use specific age ranges whenever possible. Use “aging” and “elderly” as adjectives, not as nouns.


Classism often creeps into our language. Instead of assigning class to people, you should describe their situations. This does not mean you should assume that all people have the same socioeconomic advantages, but that you should describe the advantages or lack of advantages rather than assigning attributes to people. Classism is often combined with bias toward people in terms of race or ethnicity; it is important to take care with language that might perpetuate discrimination.


           Poor Usage
      Better Usage
  lower class   people who are poor
  underclass   with low incomes
  poverty class   living under poverty conditions
  upper class   with high incomes
  the disadvantaged   with socioeconomic disadvantages
    Remember that people, themselves, are not disabilities - they have disabilities. In addition, the disabilities may be barriers, like stairs or curbs, that handicap people.


               Poor Usage
           Better Usage
      the handicapped   people with disabilities
      schizophrenics   people diagnosed with schizophrenia
      person who has ____________
      wheelchair-bound    uses a wheelchair
      the blind   people who are blind
      Say “people with AIDS,” not “AIDS victims” or “innocent victims of AIDS.” Avoid language that may imply a moral judgment on behavior or lifestyles. Instead of “high-risk groups,” which suggests demographic traits may be responsible for AIDS exposure, use “high-risk behavior.”


      Race and Ethnicity
      Ascertain what the population group prefers and use that term. Whenever possible, be specific, and describe individual population groups rather than collecting many different groups under one term.


      • "Black" and "White" should be capitalized. Avoid using “minority” and “nonwhite.” Many people described in this way view the terms as pejorative and discriminatory. Assuming white people are the predominant population group is an inaccurate portrayal of most countries in the world, as well as many areas in the United States.
      • Many people prefer to use “people of color,” but this is not a precise term. Not all people who might be included in the group under such a heading would describe themselves in this way.
      • “African Americans,” “Asian Americans,” and “Hispanic Americans” are all proper nouns that should be capitalized; hyphens should never be inserted in multiword names, even when the names are modifiers. Some individuals prefer to use “Hispanic” or “Latino” as the descriptive terms for people who have a Spanish background, and some use the two together.
      • “Native American” or “American Indian”: There has been considerable discussion over which of these terms is preferable. Many people prefer the former, because it is a more precise description.
      • The U.S. government combines “Asian and Pacific Islander,” but most Pacific Islanders prefer that they be separated.
      • Like other racial and ethnic groups, many people who are white prefer not to be described by a collective term. If it is possible to be more specific using “Italian American” or “Eastern European,” for example, do so.
      • Take care with modifiers when describing racial and ethnic groups, ensuring that you are not suggesting or assuming they are in different socioeconomic groups. For example, “We compared the reactions of African American and Hispanic men with those of middle-class white men” suggests that the first two groups are in a different status. Given historical stereotyping, the assumption would likely be that they were in a lower status.
        Poor Usage
        Better Usage
                  minorities        specific population or racial or ethnic groups
        tribes   peoples or nations
        blacks   Black people
        nonwhites   specific populations
        Use "they" for the generic third-person singular because it is inclusive of all people and avoids assumptions about gender. When gender is unknown, do not use "he," "she," "he or she," "he/she," or "s/he." Similarly, use the following forms of "they" when gender is generic: "their," "them," "theirs," "themself," and "themselves."


        Recast writing that uses male pronouns to include all people. Use plurals when possible to avoid gender reference. Be sure that terms for groups of men and women are parallel. (In other words, do not use “women doctors” with “male doctors” use “female doctors” instead.) Change terms that give the impression that only people of one sex perform certain duties or work in certain professions. (For example, use “police officer” instead of “policeman.”) In case examples, use both masculine and feminine names for clients, social workers, doctors, patients, and others.
        If writing a how-to article, address the reader directly, using “I,” “you,” and “we.” You can often substitute “we” for “he” and “our” or “the” for “his.”
          Poor Usage
          Better Usage
          Check that he or she has his or her...    Check that they have their... 
                   The social worker will find that he...         Social workers will find that they...
          Every employee should select his best option.    Employees should select the best option for them.
          He calls his children "kids."    We call our children "kids." 
          The teacher should encourage his/her student.   Teachers should encourage their students. 
          She should be careful.   You should be careful.
        • Avoid words that suggest judgment, that describe women in patronizing terms (for example, “the little lady”), suggest second-class status (for example, “authoress”), demean a woman’s ability (for example, “lady lawyer”), or are rarely used to describe men (for example, “co-ed”).
        • Do not suggest that women are possessions of men or that they cannot carry out a role of perform a job that men do.
        • Do not construct feminine versions of words that carry a masculine connotation. “Chair” or “representative” should be used instead of “chairman,” “spokesman,” “chairwoman,” or “spokeswoman.” Never use “chairman” to refer to a woman.
        • Do not specify gender unless it is a variable or is essential to the discussion. Be sure to use parallel construction: “men and women,” not “men and females” or “girls and men.” “Men” and “women” are nouns, whereas “female” and “male” should only be used as adjectives.

          Poor Usage
          Better Usage
                    Doctors often neglect their wives        Doctors often neglect their families.
        policemen   police officers
          man a project   staff a project
          chairman   chair

        housewife   homemaker
          pioneers and their wives and children   pioneer families
          mankind    humans, human beings 
        Sexual Orientation
        • "Orientation" is a state of being, whereas "preference"is a choice. You should not use the latter to refer to homosexuality or heterosexuality.
        • “Homosexual” should only be used as an adjective. You should use “lesbians,” “gay men,” “bisexual men,” or “bisexual women” to refer to people whose orientation is not exclusively heterosexual.
        • Distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual behavior. You should write, “the client reported same-gender sexual fantasies,” instead of, “the client reported homosexual fantasies.” When describing sexual activity, the appropriate terms are: “female–female,” “male–male,” “male–female,” and “same-gender.”
        Accurate Historical Reporting
        When quoting any document, you must quote it exactly as the words were written or said. If describing a historical situation, you will likely want to use the words that were used in that context. You should, however, make that context clear. If you find the language too egregious, you may want to add a footnote saying this is not your language but the language of the time in which it was written.


        NASW is committed to the fair and equal treatment of all individuals and groups. The material published by the NASW Press should not promote stereotypic or discriminatory attitudes and assumptions about people.

        Language that might imply sexual, ethnic, or other kinds of biases, discriminations, or stereotyping may not be used. Language can reinforce either inequality or balanced, accurate, and fair treatment of individuals.

        Biased and Unbiased Terms

        Following are a few examples of biased and unbiased writing, some of which come from The Nonsexist Word Finder by R. Maggio (1987; Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press) and Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes in McGraw-Hill Book Company Publications.

                    Biased        Unbiased
          bad lady/bag man   street person, homeless person
          businessman   executive, business executive
          congressman   member of Congress, representative, senator, legislator
          mothering   parenting, nurturing

        Mary, an epileptic   Mary, who has epilepsy
          male nurse   nurse, specify gender only if important to the discussion
          manpower   workforce, personnel, workers 

        Incorrect: An African American student, John James works as a part-time clerk.
        Correct: John James works as a part-time clerk.

        Incorrect: Not the type to stay at home, Betty Wong has chosen a career in politics.
        Correct: Betty Wong has chosen a career in politics.

        Usage Suggestions

        Refer to the following pages for terms to use and to avoid. Consult Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) or The Social Work Dictionary (5th ed.) for terms not found in this list. Use only the primary spelling listed in Webster’s.

        Terms to Use and to Avoid
                    and/or        Use one or the other; “or” is usually better. Otherwise, rephrase the sentence to read, “A, B, or both.”
          due to   Do not use for “because of,” “owing to,” and “on account of” in adverbial phrases. “Due,” an adjective, should be attached only to a noun or pronoun, not to a verb.
        Incorrect: His failure was due to . . .
        Correct: He failed because of . . .
          e.g.   Use “for example.”
          employ   Use only in reference to working; otherwise, use “use.”
        She is employed at a local agency.
        The authors used the following methods: . . .
          etc.   Use “and so on,” “and so forth,” or “and the like.”
          execute   Use “implement.”
          feel   Use only for emotions, not as a substitute for “think” or “believe.”
          i.e.   Use “that is.”
          impact   Do not use impact as a verb. Use “have an impact” or “affect.” Do not overuse impact as a noun. Use “effect” when appropriate.
          in order to   The word “to” is usually enough.
          prior to   Use “before.”
          service   Do not use service as a verb. Use “serve” or “provide service to.”
          since   Use only when referring to time. Otherwise, use “because” or “given that.”
          the fact that   The word “that” is usually (but not always) enough.
          utilize   Use “use.”
          via   Use “through” or “by” unless referring to electronic transmissions, highways, or other routes of transportation.
          where   Use only when referring to geographic location.
          Use only when referring to time. Otherwise, use “and,” “but,” “although,” “in which,” or “whereas” as appropriate.
        Acronyms that do not need to be spelled out:

        In addition, parties and states of members of Congress are abbreviated in parentheses.

        Example: Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)

        University Names
        Variations occur in the way some universities (often within the same university system) refer to themselves. Preferred usage for some of these institutions is as follows:

          Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick
          University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY)
          State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo
          University of California, Berkeley
          University of California, Los Angeles
          University of California, San Diego
          University of California, San Francisco
          University College, University of Maryland, College Park
          University of Maryland at Baltimore
          University of Maryland, Baltimore County
          University of Maryland, College Park
          University of Minnesota, Bloomington
          University of Minnesota-Minneapolis
          University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
          University of Texas, Arlington
          University of Texas at Austin
          University of Wisconsin-Madison
          University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

        Foreign Languages
        Occasionally, a manuscript contains words or text in a foreign language. It is important that this material be as correct as possible.


        • Foreign words or phrases are sometimes inserted into English text. If the word or phrase is in Webster’s, it is considered to have become part of the English language and is not italicized. Be sure to check that the spelling—including diacriticals, phonetic marks used in many non-English languages, like accents (é) or umlauts (ë) is correct.
        • If the word is not in Webster’s, italicize it and include a parenthetical translation if it is not clear from the context.
        • Occasionally, a sentence or more, or a title in the reference list, is in a foreign language. In text, such material should be in italics; in the reference list, follow the same rules for italicizing as with English.

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