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Sensitivity: Avoiding offense
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Sensitivity: Avoiding Offense
by Susan Stempleski

Introduction

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.

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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, not African.

At any given time, members of a particular racial or ethnic group prefer different terms, and certain words become outdated.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.

Sensitive topics

Gender

Gender is the area in which it is most difficult to avoid giving offense. This is partly because of the way the English language works.

  • The word man originally meant both adult human and adult male. But nowadays its meaning is so closely identified with adult male that in sentences like Man has always dreamed of being able to fly, it does not seem to include women.

    When referring to adult humans, you can avoid offending anyone by using terms like people or human beings instead of man: People have always dreamed of being able to fly.

  • Many older words for occupations seem to exclude women because they include the word man. Avoid using man in words for jobs that can be held by either a man or a woman. Use neutral words that include both sexes. For example, instead of businessman use a word like executive or businessperson, and instead of fireman use firefighter.
  • Avoid using words like manageress, actress, and other words ending in -ess to refer to women. Words like these are considered old-fashioned and are offensive to some people. Use words like manager and actor that can refer to both men and women.

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:

  1. Use the plural form for both nouns and pronouns:
    All the students brought their own dictionaries.

  2. Reword the statement to avoid using a pronoun:
    Each student brought a dictionary.

  3. Use the phrase his or her:
    Each student brought his or her own dictionary.

  4. Use s/he:
    Each student brought the dictionary that s/he preferred.

  5. Use the plural pronoun their after an indefinite pronoun:
    Everyone brought their own dictionary.

Sensitive topics

Age

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.
  • People over sixty-five can get a discount.
  • Many senior citizens enjoy taking walks year-round.

Sensitive topics

Illness and Disability

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 mentally ill
  • apartments for people who are disabled or people with disabilities

Sensitive topics

Sexual Preference

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.

Sensitive topics

Titles

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 Miss.

Sensitive topics

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Using the Most Appropriate Words

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.

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Further Reading

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 expressions.

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About the Usage Notes

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 entries:
black English God old
crazy -ess he partner
die gay man
disabled girl Ms.

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