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There are a number of Usage Notes in the Macmillan
English Dictionary that deal with sensitive language. By sensitive
language we mean words that you need to be careful about using because
their use may, intentionally or not, insult or offend some people.
The Usage Notes that deal with sensitive language fall
into two groups:
- Words that may cause offense
These Usage Notes give information about words that
you should avoid using because they might offend or upset some people.
In many cases, the notes suggest appropriate words that you can use
instead of the potentially offensive term.
- Words that avoid giving offense
These Usage Notes give information about words that
are appropriate to use when talking or writing about sensitive topics.
Being aware of sensitive topics can help you to avoid
using words that might offend or upset people.
Below is a list of the most common sensitive topics, along
with some general suggestions for avoiding offense in these areas.
Nowadays more and more groups of people prefer to be
called by the name they have chosen, rather than by terms selected for
them by others.
In the U.S., for example, the most sensitive areas of
vocabulary are often those that deal with racial and ethnic groups.
For example, many Americans whose families originally came from Africa
prefer to be called African-American. But there are others who
prefer to be called black because they see themselves as American,
At any given time, members of a particular racial or
ethnic group prefer different terms, and certain words become outdated.
For example, in books and articles that were written in the middle of
the last century you may see expressions like Oriental or Chinaman.
Be careful to avoid using old-fashioned and offensive words like these.
Do your best to substitute more acceptable terms, such as Asians
or Chinese people.
Gender is the area in which it is most difficult to
avoid giving offense. This is partly because of the way the English
Because English has no singular common-sex pronoun,
speakers of English have traditionally used the pronouns
he, his, and him
in expressions like Each student brought his
own dictionary. Here are some ways you can avoid using masculine
pronouns to refer to groups that are made up of both men and women:
- Use the plural form for both nouns and pronouns:
All the students
brought their own dictionaries.
- Reword the statement to avoid using a pronoun:
Each student brought a dictionary.
- Use the phrase his or her:
Each student brought his
or her own dictionary.
- Use s/he:
Each student brought the dictionary that
- Use the plural pronoun their
after an indefinite pronoun:
brought their own dictionary.
As more and more people are living longer, healthier,
and more active lives, the concept of ageing is changing. Many people
think that using words like old and
elderly to describe older people is
offensive because they seem to suggest inactivity or weakness.
To avoid offending people, use terms that give more
detailed or exact information about the person or people described:
- Membership is only available
to retired people.
over sixty-five can get a discount.
- Many senior
citizens enjoy taking walks year-round.
Some people object to phrases like Aids
sufferer, mental patients,
or the handicapped because they seem
to emphasize the illness or disability, rather than the person.
When referring to people who are ill or disabled, try
to use expressions that emphasize the person:
- a person living with Aids
- a hospital for people who are
- apartments for
people who are disabled or people with disabilities
Avoid old-fashioned and insulting terms when referring
to people who have sexual relationships with members of the same sex.
To avoid giving offense, use the word gay
to refer to men who are sexually attracted to other men, and
lesbian for women who are sexually attracted to other
women. Use same-sex to describe relationships
between two men or two women.
One of the problems with the English language is that
it does not have different titles for single and married men, but it
does for single and married women.
When addressing a woman, do not guess her marital status.
If you do not know whether she is married or not, use Ms.
to address her, rather than Mrs. or
Since "appropriate" words change all the time,
it is not always possible to know what words show the most sensitivity
or are the most appropriate for a particular situation.
To avoid offending people with inappropriate language,
try following these suggestions:
- When talking to members of a particular racial, ethnic,
or other cultural group, ask them which terms they prefer. It is better
to ask people than to risk insulting them unintentionally.
- Avoid using slang terms to refer to people. Slang terms
for people are often very insulting.
For more detailed advice on how to avoid offending people
when talking or writing about topics such as gender, race, nationality,
religion, disability, sexual preference, and age, see Talking about
People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate language by Rosalie Maggio (published
by Oryx Press in 1997).
This book presents thousands of terms that can be used
in place of outdated and offensive language. It also gives information
about political and social issues that are related to various words and
The Usage Notes that deal with sensitive language are
located at dictionary entries that relate to sensitive topics.
In cases where the Usage note deals with a word or words
that may cause offense, the note usually suggests appropriate words or
expressions that you can use instead of the potentially offensive word.
But there are often many other appropriate words and expressions that
could also be used.
There are Usage Notes on sensitive language at the following