“One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people—a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes.” Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays
Communicating your research is about more than showing mean data points on a graph or performing a slick statistical analysis. You will also need to describe your study group. If you study a human disease, communicating your research well should consider how you write about the humans in your human disease research.
First, ask your study group about their preferences. How do they refer to themselves? How does the national disease association write about the people it serves? Then consider these general guidelines on the use of “person-first language” and other recommendations for writing about people with dignity.
Avoid equating a person with their disease. Instead, put the person first. For example, instead of writing “we enrolled 60 asthmatics,” you could write “we enrolled 60 children with asthma.”
Avoid emotionally laden terms like suffering, stricken, or burdened (with disease or its symptoms). As explained by the National Center on Disability and Journalism, “Not every person with a disability suffers, is a victim or is stricken” .
A journal’s instructions for authors will often offer guidance on preferred language for publication in the field. For example, if you study diabetes, the Instructions for Authors of Diabetes Care, published by the American Diabetes Association, states “The term diabetic should not be used as a noun” . The AMA Manual of Style offers these alternatives: person with diabetes, study participants in the diabetes group, or diabetic patients .
Writing About Obesity
If you are writing about obesity, visit the Obesity Action Coalition, who work to educate people on how language can contribute to stigma . The Author Guidelines for Obesity, the official journal of The Obesity Society, support the people-first initiative. Authors are asked to avoid the use of obese as both an adjective and a noun . So whereas the AMA Manual of Style suggests diabetic patients as an alternative to diabetics, The Obesity Society prefers “people with obesity” as an alternative to obese people. Authors are also urged to avoid any language that attributes moral judgments or character flaws to this population.
Writing About Mental Health and Addiction
In 2017 the Associated Press updated the entries in its style guide (the AP Stylebook) on drugs and addiction. Reporters are urged to avoid words like alcoholic, addict, and abuser. Instead of writing “heroin addict,” write “a person with a heroin addiction.” Many in the addiction treatment field saw these changes as positive steps. In an article covering the updates, Felice J. Freyer of the Boston Globe wrote, “For too long, [advocates] say, the language around addiction implied moral failing rather than illness, a stigma that discourages treatment” .
The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health offers these alternatives when writing about a person’s mental health :
Writing About Older Adults
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAGS), one of the oldest publications in the geriatrics field, published an editorial in 2017 titled “When It Comes to Older Adults, Language Matters” . The JAGS editors wrote that despite continued progress in our understanding of aging and advances in health care, public perception of aging is often negative. Aging is seen by many as an undesirable, inescapable decline. To avoid the negative stereotypes that accompany such terms, the journal will not allow words like (the) aged, (the) elderly, and seniors. Instead, authors will be asked to use “older adults” when describing persons aged 65 years and older and to provide a specific age range (eg, “we studied older adults aged 70 to 84”) when describing their research.
Before applying any style, ask the group you are studying about their preferences. Person-first language is not the only type of language used when discussing people and disability. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Knowledge Translation Center explains, “People with disabilities have different preferences when referring to their disability. Some people see their disability as an essential part of who they are and prefer to be identified with their disability first – this is called Identity-First Language” . For example, some people prefer to be referred to as an autistic person instead of a person with autism or as a deaf person rather than as a person who is deaf.
Even within a community, a term may be spelled differently. In the Deaf community, some capitalize the word Deaf when referring to the culture or community. (See the entry for Deaf in the Disability Language Style Guide.)
Where to Go for More Information
The Conscious Style Guide provides tools and articles “that promote critical thinking about language and how we can use conscious words, portrayals, framing, and representation to empower instead of limit.” Click on the heading “Guides” to link to articles and resources for writing about ability + disability; age; appearance; empowerment; ethnicity, race + nationality; gender, sex + sexuality; health; and more.
The Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) is an alphabetized list of terms and words that includes a definition, a summary of how the word is used by disability groups, AP Stylebook usage when available, and an NCDJ recommendation for usage.
1. Disability Language Style Guide. Entry for Afflicted with/stricken with/suffers from/victim of. National Center on Disability and Journalism website. http://ncdj.org/style-guide/#afflictedwith. Accessed July 9, 2018.
2. Diabetes Care Instructions for Authors. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/instructions-for-authors. Last updated November 2017. Accessed July 9, 2018.
3. American Medical Association. AMA Manual of Style. A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2007.
4. Obesity Action Coalition. Weight Bias. People-First Language. https://www.obesityaction.org/action-through-advocacy/weight-bias/people-first-language/. Accessed July 16, 2018.
5. Author Guidelines for Obesity. https://wol-prod-cdn.literatumonline.com/pb-assets/assets/1930739X/Obesity_Author_Guidelines_August_2017-1509548378000.pdf. Revised August 2017. Accessed July 9, 2018.
6. Freyer FJ. Influential word-usage guide changes the language of addiction. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/06/15/influential-word-usage-guide-changes-language-addiction/13rjYqKdeaMJwyOhi6MQQL/story.html. Published June 15, 2017. Accessed
7. Language Matters in Mental Health. Hogg Foundation for Mental Health website. http://hogg.utexas.edu/news-resources/language-matters-in-mental-health. Accessed July 9, 2018.
8. Lundebjerg NE, Trucil DE, Hammond EC, Applegate WB. When it comes to older adults, language matters: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society adopts modified American Medical Association Style. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017 Jul;65(7):1386-1388. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jgs.14941
9. Guidelines for Writing About People With Disabilities. ADA National Network website. https://adata.org/factsheet/ADANN-writing. Published 2017. Accessed July 9, 2018.
and thanks to Gretchen Rubin for sharing the quote used in the epigraph in her Moment of Happiness email newsletter