Public Editor

Dealing with ‘People First Language’

Euphemism and soft-pedaling are enemies of directness. While in polite company we may say someone “passed away,” news reports are generally more to the point, if not discomfitingly blunt: The person died.

This simple, direct form of language harks back to the counsel of the famous copy style sheet that Ernest Hemingway was given during his tenure as a reporter for The Kansas City Star in the early 20th century. It began:

Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.

Hemingway later remarked the style sheet contained “the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing.” And while some of those bits of advice have been overruled by modern copy editors (“’Several

persons

were in the room,’ not ‘several

people,

’ is reversed today), its overall intent is clear: Don’t sugarcoat. Don’t use superfluous words when fewer will do.

Pundits have railed against political correctness since it first came to wide public attention in the late 1980s, arguing that some attempts at not offending people can rise to the level of absurdity: “follicularly challenged” instead of “bald” or “vertically challenged” instead of “short.”

But most of these silly examples are straw men, with nobody seriously arguing on their behalf. And there is very good reason to consider carefully the words journalists choose, especially in describing people.

Star reporter Brad Cooper shared email with me from a reader who had read and appreciated an Aug. 9 story he wrote on the issue of insurance for families who have children diagnosed with autism. The story and its headline used the adjective “autistic” a total of five times. However, the emailer pointed out there is another term many people find more appropriate.

“You may have heard of People First Language,” she wrote. “Instead of saying, ‘autistic child,’ one could say, ‘child with autism.’ This doesn’t define the diagnosis as the main source of who the individual is. The diagnosis isn’t the only identifying makeup of the person.”

I have heard from other readers through the years making similar suggestions: Use “man with mental illness” instead of “mentally ill man.” Refer to “deaf people” instead of “the deaf.” That example I find particularly persuasive.

Especially in my own writing, I try to be especially sensitive to how people are comfortable being described. And I do understand that stark adjectives, while perhaps technically accurate, may carry a sting alleviated by the People First Language.

The problem, though, is that not everyone who may fall into any one group will ever agree on these matters. You don’t have to wade far into any online discussion of the question of labels to find people on both sides of the fence, even though they’re presumably from the same background.

There are many people with various disabilities who feel the “person with” construction is awkward, impractical or even infantilizing or condescending.

The Star follows the Associated Press Stylebook, which points out some of the potential pitfalls in the many different terms we use to describe ourselves. “Follow a person’s preference” is its over-arching dictate.

But that’s obviously impossible when referring to a group. Each individual case requires careful consideration.

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