This document is intended to help staff at the PMC and external colleagues to sensitively and accurately describe different groups of people. You can use this document as a reference for deciding how to describe someone, or a group of people, in everyday conversation, drafting policy, external communications and writing conference papers or articles. It is a living document and will be kept relevant by being updated, questioned and revised.
This document began as an initiative of the PMC’s Race Equity Working Group (which in December 2021 adopted an expanded remit and became the Equity, Ethics and Engagement Group). However, its principles apply broadly and should inform descriptions of people’s gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability or other characteristics, as well as their race or ethnicity.
Guided by the principles below, the PMC prefers deferring to specific language guidelines that have been created by, or created with, the groups of people they describe. A set of resources that have especially shaped our approach to decision making on language is shared at the end of this document.
Language is evolving and subject to preference. Inclusive language uses appropriate and preferred terms for a person or group of people, and avoids words, phrases, expressions or assumptions that unnecessarily exclude or stereotype people. Rather than recommending a set of specific terms, we encourage everyone we work with to adopt best practices for choosing inclusive and fair language, based on agreement around a shared set of principles. Principles for inclusive language are:
Prioritise self-description and the co-creation of standards
- Start from the premise that individuals are expert in their own experience.
- If you are unsure how to describe somebody, begin by doing your research. Look at their websites, biographies, social media, publications, past events and see how they refer to themselves. You can also research how they are referred to by others.
- In person or in correspondence, you can wait to hear or read somebody’s cues or, if it feels appropriate, ask how they self-identify: for example, “what is your preferred pronoun”? or “how do you describe your ethnicity”?
- When you do hear somebody self-describe, consider if a person outside that identity category can also use that language without it having a negative impact.
- Frequent community input is required to enable institutional practices of self-description, via feedback sessions, panels and research into the latest official guides on best practice.
Put People First
- Language should centre on the person before a characteristic and not objectify them.
- Generally, adjectives that describe people are preferable to nouns that label people as if their whole identity depends on that characteristic. For example, when writing about slavery, use “enslaved person” rather than “a slave”; always say “Aboriginal people” rather than “Aboriginals”. Rather than “the homeless” or “rough sleepers” you can refer to “people experiencing homelessness”.
- As part of this principle, avoid undue references to people’s characteristics. For example, if you encounter the phrase “a Black editor” as opposed to “an editor” – ask yourself, why is the extra descriptor necessary?
- At the same time, there are exceptions to the “put people first” principle. For example, many people with a hearing impairment and/or who use British Sign Language consider themselves part of the “deaf community” and may describe themselves as “Deaf”. The descriptor “D/deaf” is a common term to respectfully include people who do and don’t capitalise those terms. This particular exception reinforces the importance of self-description.
- Research the most appropriate specific terminology for a group or person. For example, in this BBC article, Nicole Miners identifies as “British East Asian” rather than “BAME”.
- Avoid acronyms and, when used, spell them out (e.g. “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour” rather than “BIPOC”).
- Be aware that acronyms perpetuate ambiguity, can be highly contested and vary in use between different locations. For example, research shows that most people in the UK don’t know what “BAME” stands for, while the various extensions and variations of the LGB acronym (such as LGBTQ or LGBTQI+ etc.) have been controversial and can be associated with very different meanings.
- When a catch-all term such as “BIPOC” is used, it may help to caveat or explain your choice.
- Question the use of terms relating to protected characteristics as adjectives, such as “the queer community” or “a prominent Jewish leader”. In those cases, ask yourself, does a single community of all people who identify as queer – or “leader” to all people who identify as Jewish – actually exist?
- Avoid describing people by referencing what they are not (e.g. “non-white” or “non-black”).
- Question universalising words like “we” or “everyone”. Who is really being described?
- Consider who is speaking and the intended audience. For example, if you are giving an academic paper, filling out a government policy form or speaking in a less formal setting, the terms you use may be dependent on the frameworks of that space.
- Clarify your intention in using the language – what is the subject, or who are the people, you really want to address?
Be Comfortable with Change
- Language evolves and we should move with it. Explain your methods for choosing language and be transparent about, and explain changes in, your use of language.
The following language guidelines have especially shaped our approach to decisions around sensitive and accurate language. Of course, there are many useful resources beyond these, and we share them in the spirit of transparency and as a first port of call for people wanting to learn more:
Disability Rights UK. Social Model of Disability: Language, 2012. https://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/social-model-disability-language
GLAAD. GLAAD Media Reference Guide, 10th edition, October 2016. https://www.glaad.org/reference
Inc Arts UK #BAMEOver: A Statement for the UK, 2020. https://incarts.uk/%23bameover-the-statement
Wayne Modest and Robin Lelijveld, eds., Words Matter, Work in Progress I. National Museum of World Cultures, 2018. https://www.materialculture.nl/en/publications/words-matter
MP Associates, Center for Assessment and Policy Development, and World Trust Educational Services. Racial Equity Tools Glossary, October 2021. https://www.racialequitytools.org/glossary#implicit-bias
NABJ, National Association of Black Journalists Style Guide, last updated June 2020. https://www.nabj.org/page/styleguide
Professor Gabrielle Foreman and other senior scholars of colour. Writing about “Slavery”? This Might Help, 2020. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A4TEdDgYslX-hlKezLodMIM71My3KTN0zxRv0IQTOQs/mobilebasic
Stonewall. List of LGBTQ+ terms. https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/faqs-and-glossary/list-lgbtq-terms
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Guidelines for the Ethical Publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Authors and Research from those Communities, 2015. https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/asp/ethical-publishing-guidelines.pdf
The University of British Columbia. Indigenous Peoples: Language Guidelines, Version 3.0, 2021. http://assets.brand.ubc.ca/downloads/ubc_indigenous_peoples_language_guide.pdf