This is an intensely tricky area. For some, political correctness is a matter for mockery, while for others it is the civilised way to behave. Whatever your perspective, there are times when we may unintentionally cause needless hurt or offence, and these pointers could help to avoid such occasions.
blonde/brunette: Would you make a point of mentioning a man’s hair colour? If not, don’t do it for a woman, unless it is part of her stock in trade. Do not use ‘blonde’ as a noun substitute for ‘woman’ unless you wish to cause offence, or unless the woman positively defines herself as a blonde. Incidentally the male version of blonde is blond. And please, never use ‘flame-haired’.
fire persons: The PC word is ‘firefighters’ but many prefer ‘firemen’. To a certain extent you can get round this by saying ‘fire crew’.
gay: There seems to be division of opinion in the gay/homosexual community about which term they prefer, but the majority think ‘homosexual’ tends to be used by those who are intolerant. The accepted politically correct term for the community is LGBTQ: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. Do not call a man ‘a gay’. Say ‘a gay man’ or ‘he is gay’. The same applies to bisexual – ‘he is bisexual’, not ‘he is a bisexual’. However lesbian is acceptable as a noun, eg ‘she is a lesbian’. Never say someone ‘admits’ to being homosexual or is a ‘self-confessed’ homosexual. An alternative would be ‘who is openly gay’.
man flu: Obviously if a story is about the topic you can’t avoid it, but don’t write in references to alleged male weakness. Sexism cuts both ways.
Ms is still not allowed in some newspapers, and women must be Mrs or Miss. However my guess is that Ms will become acceptable sooner or later, probably more for reasons of ease than anything else. It saves the reporter having to ring up to ask a woman whether or not she is married. Or you could follow the Guardian, which calls all women by their surnames only, but this is not yet common practice.
pretty/attractive/beautiful: As in ‘the pretty student’. Take care, especially if there is a picture, because everyone has different ideas about good looks and many will not agree with you. Think whether you would put the equivalent word for a male subject, and if not, lose it. There is also often an implication that a crime or accident is somehow worse if the victim is pretty/attractive/beautiful, and this is unacceptable. The victim’s appearance, rightly or wrongly, may be the reason the story is being used, but you should not make this blatantly obvious.
sex kitten, as applied to Brigitte Bardot – yes, some geriatric reporters (and subs) are still using it.
spinster/bachelor: Old-fashioned, and slightly suggests failure. Say ‘who is single’ or similar. For men, ‘confirmed bachelor’ or ‘who never married’ is code for homosexual.
spokesman, chairman: The old guard insist on spokesman, not spokesperson or spokeswoman, and similarly chairman, not -person, -woman or chair, and foreman of the jury. The reasoning is that -man is gender-neutral, as in mankind. However the tide has definitely turned and spokeswomen etc are on the march. Make your own choice.
stage persons: These days many women who act call themselves ‘actors’ but traditionalists prefer ‘actresses’. Similarly, funny women may be the gender-neutral comedians or ‘comediennes’.
transgender: This is an adjective to describe someone who feels the sexual identity assigned at birth is incorrect. The person may or may not take steps to bring about alteration to the opposite sex. The transgender community does not like the term ‘sex change’.
transsexual (note spelling): This is an adjective for a person who is taking steps to change sex, or who has achieved this. Once someone has started along the medical route, you should describe the person as a ‘a transsexual person’, ‘a transsexual man’ (one who was called female at birth) or ‘transsexual woman’ (one who was called male at birth) but not ‘a transsexual’. They should be given their chosen name. Do not put quotation marks around either a transgender person's chosen name or the pronoun that reflects that person's gender identity. It would be polite to check with the individual that you are using terms that he or she accepts.
transvestite: Note that a transvestite, who enjoys wearing clothes of the opposite sex, is not the same as a transsexual, who wants to be a person of the opposite sex. The community prefers the term ‘cross-dresser’.
woman/female: As nouns, I would be very careful about ‘female’. It is often used pejoratively to suggest a strident woman or harridan. Unless you are certain this is what you want to convey, use ‘woman’. (Incidentally, never ‘lady’.) Note that female is both a noun and an adjective, but woman is a noun only – you can’t talk about ‘women writers’ or indeed ‘woman writers’. It must be ‘female writers’.
women: The vast majority of media executives are men, and they can lose sight of the female perspective. They should take care not to patronise ‘the fairer sex’ (that’s meant to be an example). There was a shocker of a headline in August 2010 on a feature about a community of nuns: ‘The only place in Britain where women keep their mouths shut’. I am informed that this was meant to be a joke. All I would say is that a woman would never have written this heading, and to me it displays an attitude of male superiority, subconscious though it may be.
elderly, aged, old: Be very careful with this. You risk causing grave offence to many readers (not to mention some colleagues) if you tie it to a specific age. I would recommend not using it for anyone under 70, though anyone over 65 (60 for women for the time being) can legitimately be called a pensioner (not an OAP). I doubt if many women of 60 would be thrilled to be called a pensioner, but it’s up to you. Just remember that you will get to 60 one day. Do not use ‘geriatric’ as a noun for an older person; it should be restricted to use as a medical term.
giving age in stories: It used to be more or less mandatory to give the age of almost anyone mentioned in a story, but some now feel it is intrusive. The fact is that it is often relevant and helpful in conveying an image, like it or not. It makes a big difference if a have-a-go hero, for instance, is 20 or 60.
Disability and illness
Aids is a condition which leaves one open to diseases, not a cause of death in itself. Therefore technically you should not say that someone died of Aids, but of an Aids-related illness. The incorrect form has been used so often that it is probably acceptable, but it does no harm to get it right. Do not say ‘an Aids sufferer/victim’ but ‘a person with Aids’. Aids stands for ‘acquired immune deficiency syndrome’, and it is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Those infected with HIV are called HIV-positive, and may for some while have no symptoms. However eventually in almost all cases there is a progressive failure of the immune system to the point at which the person is said to have Aids, and another infection is likely to cause death.
battling illness: It is very easy to use the cliche ‘She won her battle against cancer’ but do be thoughtful. You can make it sound as if those who succumb have not ‘fought’ hard enough or have in some way given in, which is obviously very hurtful. In reality not many cancer patients (or indeed those with any illness) have much choice about their treatment. They die or survive for a whole host of reasons, but their ‘battling’ qualities are probably not relevant. We can fall into the same trap with spinal injury patients who learn to walk again. It is not so much a matter of ‘fighting’ as the nature of the injury.
epileptic: The adjective for fits, not a noun for a person. Say ‘he has epilepsy’. Similarly, schizophrenic and diabetic.
leper: Do not use. Say ‘who has leprosy’ or ‘leprosy patient’.
names: Do not use first names for adults in a patronising way. A recent example of how not to do it was the Daily Mail’s campaign on behalf of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker facing extradition to the United States. He has a form of autism and despite the fact that he is 40-plus, the paper persistently referred to him as ‘Gary’, when any other man of his age would be ‘Mr McKinnon’. We should refer to adults with disability in precisely the same way as we would to anyone else.
outdated terms: This probably goes without saying, but words from a less enlightened age such as ‘spastic’ and ‘mongol’ must never be used, except if we are criticising someone for using them. Be careful with expressions such as ‘deaf ears’ and ‘dialogue of the deaf’. Avoid ‘deaf and dumb’ and ‘deaf mute’ which the deaf lobby finds offensive. Use ‘profoundly deaf’ or ‘deaf without speech’. The disability lobby objects to the terms ‘wheelchair-bound’ and ‘in a wheelchair’, preferring ‘uses a wheelchair’. This may come across as the sort of political correctness to which some object, but if there is a form of words which does not sound ridiculous and at the same time avoids antagonising the disabled community, I can’t see any reason not to use it.
risk: Recently the mother of a Down’s syndrome child complained about the routine use of the expression ‘the risk of having a Down’s baby’, and suggested that it would be less hurtful to use the word ‘chance’. This is good advice - the meaning is the same but the nuance is quite different.
scroungers: There is deep concern among the disabled that the Government’s focus on removing benefits from fraudsters, and the media reporting of the policy, has led to anyone who is labelled ‘disabled’ being automatically seen as a scrounger. The only recommendation I can make is that if a story includes balancing material about genuine claimants, of whom there are many, try your best to keep that in.
Siamese twins: This seems rather old-fashioned now; the more acceptable expression is conjoined twins.
suffering/victim: Be very careful about using ‘suffer’ or ‘suffering’. For example, do not say ‘She suffers from cerebral palsy’, but instead say ‘She has cerebral palsy’. Similarly, ‘A man with Down’s syndrome’. This is because, quite reasonably, those with disabilities do not relish being treated as objects of pity. The same applies to ‘victim’. There is usually no problem with using these words in connection with injuries or acute illnesses; the trouble arises with chronic or life-long conditions.
Race and religion
AD, BC: There is a movement to replace these Christianity-based terms with CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era).
asylum seekers: An asylum seeker cannot be ‘illegal’. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum. If an application for asylum is turned down the person becomes a ‘failed’ asylum seeker. If it is found that the application for asylum was based on forged documentation or on a pack of lies the person could subsequently be called a ‘bogus asylum seeker’. An asylum seeker who refuses to comply with a notice to leave becomes an ‘illegal immigrant’. Note that migrants may be legal or illegal.
Eskimo is widely regarded as a derogatory term and it would be safer to use Inuit instead, except in historical contexts. Some authorities say that Inuk is the singular, but others say Inuit is the singular and plural. Let’s go with the latter as it is simpler. We can make an exception for the Canadian Eskimo Dog, a breed registered with the Kennel Club.
Red Indian: I doubt if anyone would use this term these days: it should be Native American, or First Nations for Canadian groups.
Aborigine: The native people of Australia may be called Aborigines (with a cap and not abbreviated) or Indigenous Australians (caps), but not Aboriginals.
person of colour (color): This is the preferred term in the US for non-whites. Beware! It is not interchangeable with ‘coloured person’, which was the previous much-hated term for African Americans and should be avoided.
Holocaust: Takes a cap when referring to the events of the Second World War. Never trivialise it by using it as an image for other events. Similarly, do not use concentration camp names as in ‘He looked like an inmate of Auschwitz’ unless you are absolutely certain it is a legitimate comparison. In other words, not for ‘I’m a Celebrity’.
race and religion: Do not mention a person’s race or religion unless it is strictly relevant to the story, for example a racist attack, a terrorist attack on religious lines, or something involving a culture’s beliefs or customs such as forced marriage (incidentally do not confuse forced marriage with arranged marriage). Never use words such as nigger, Paki or even negro unless you make it crystal clear that they are being used in a disapproving or historical context. Even then you must think very carefully about using them, and you may need to use asterisks. Beware of ‘Christian name’ if you are not sure about someone’s background: ‘first name’ is safer. There is less concern with using nationality than race or religion. It is fine to identify a criminal as Latvian or whatever.
terrorist: As we all know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I don’t see much problem with ‘terrorist’ for anyone who uses violence to cause terror, but if you have a view on the aims of a particular group and are sympathetic to them, better words could be ‘rebel’ or ‘militant’.
house values: use only if relevant to the story. It is not appropriate, for example, in a story about a student killed in a gap year tragedy.
illegitimate: Should be used only in a historical context, such as ‘he was the illegitimate son of Henry VIII’. The same goes for ‘bastard’, though that would be even harder to justify.
obscenities: You need to make a choice between spelling out obscenities and coyly using asterisks so that readers know what you mean but don’t actually have to see the word. In the latter case, you need to give enough letters to make it clear what the word is. So the c-word is c*** or plural c***s. The less offensive c-word should be c**k. The f-word is f***. No one would think more minor words such as ‘bloody’ need asterisks, but there is a grey area in between. What about ‘sod’ or ‘bollocks’, for example? It is probably better to err on the side of caution and use too many asterisks than too few, messy and hard to read though they are. Incidentally, the word bitch, meaning a female dog, does not need to be given asterisks as in the Daily Mail, May 25, 2015, which ranks among the most stupid things I have ever seen.