This section of the CU Boulder style guide recommends language that is free from stereotypes, subtle discrimination and negative messages. People’s preferences can differ widely. As a rule: Ask people what they prefer.
From the Linguistic Society of America: “Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” Inclusive language avoids “past pitfalls or habits that may unintentionally lead to marginalization, offense, misrepresentation, or the perpetuation of stereotypes.”
The University of Colorado Boulder exemplifies excellence through diversity by:
- Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment
- Deepening our ability to share and to engage with diverse perspectives
- Maximizing the success and inclusion of all students, staff and faculty
For more from the Office of Diversity, Equity & Community Engagement, visit its resource page.
Mention only when relevant. We use person-first language, such as person with a disability, not disabled person.
(From the Linguistic Society of America): “In referring to groups characterized by a disability, be sensitive to community and/or author-specific preferences for terms such as Deaf vs. hearing impaired, disabled vs. person with disabilities, is autistic vs. has autism vs. has been diagnosed with autism, and other such expressions. Be aware of the significance of capitalization with terms such as deaf vs. Deaf, where the former refers to a physical characteristic and the latter represents membership in the Deaf culture and communities. (AP style differs here, lowercasing deaf in all uses.) Avoid seemingly euphemistic terms such as differently abled.
From the AP stylebook
blind Describes a person with complete or nearly complete loss of sight. For others, use terms such as visually impaired or person with low vision.
deaf Describes a person with total or major hearing loss. For others, use partial hearing loss or partially deaf. Avoid using deaf-mute. Do not use deaf and dumb. Some object to the term hearing-impaired; try to determine a person’s preference.
disabled A general term used for a physical, mental, developmental or intellectual disability. Address only when relevant. Use person-first language: people with disabilities.
handicap It should be avoided in describing a disability. Use accessible instead of handicapped: accessible restrooms, accessible parking.
wheelchair user People use wheelchairs for independent mobility. Do not use confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound. If a wheelchair is needed, and relevant, say why.
suffers from/stricken by Avoid. He has Parkinson’s disease, not He suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
We consult AP style, with some exceptions. In general, use gender-neutral language when possible. From AP: Mother/father, son/daughter, sister/brother, husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend and other relationship terms are generally acceptable. But use parent, child, sibling, spouse, partner if preferred.
alumnus, alumni, alumna, alumnae, graduate, not alum or alums. Grad may be used in less formal cases or when seeking a gender-neutral term. Alumni is the plural for men and mixed-gender groups and is not used in singular references.
blond/blonde, brunette, redhead: Avoid, especially as nouns. He has brown hair. Blond is the adjective for both men and women. Blonde is the noun only for women.
business owner or businessperson, not businessman/businesswoman
chair, not chairman/chairwoman/chairperson
firefighter, not fireman
first-year student, not freshman
humanity, humankind, humans, human beings, people, not man or mankind
human-made, human-caused, artificial, synthetic, not man-made
letter carrier or mail carrier, not mailman
ombuds Preferred over ombudsman/ombudsmen; ombuds is singular and plural; CU Boulder Ombuds Office.
Singular “they” (from the Linguistic Society of America): “While it used to be assumed that he was an appropriate gender-neutral default term, research shows that a masculine pronoun or terms marked for masculine gender, such as man, are overwhelmingly interpreted as male even when users intend them to be understood more generally.” If a person prefers “they” over “he” or “she,” explain it briefly: . . . said Smith, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
(From the AP stylebook)
Gender is not synonymous with sex. Gender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people. When needed for clarity or in certain stories about scientific studies, alternatives include men and women, boys and girls, males and females.
Some frequently used terms and definitions:
asexual Describes people who don’t experience sexual attraction, though they may feel other types of attraction, such as romantic or aesthetic. Not synonymous with and does not assume celibacy.
bisexual Describes people attracted to more than one gender. Some people prefer pansexual, which describes people attracted to others regardless of their gender. The shortened version bi is acceptable in quotations.
cisgender Describes people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth; that is, not transgender. Explain if necessary. Do not use terms like normal to describe people who are not transgender. Not synonymous with heterosexual, which refers to sexual orientation.
cross-dresser Use this term instead of the outdated transvestite for someone who wears clothing associated with a different gender, and only when the subject identifies as such. Not synonymous with drag performer or transgender.
drag performer, drag queen, drag king Entertainers who dress and act as a different gender. Drag queens act as women; drag kings act as men. Male impersonator or female impersonator is also acceptable. Not synonymous with cross-dresser or transgender.
gay, lesbian Used to describe people attracted to the same sex. Preferred over homosexual. Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to sexual preference or to a gay or alternative lifestyle. Gays is acceptable as a plural noun when necessary, but do not use the singular gay as a noun. Lesbian is acceptable as a noun in singular or plural form. Sexual orientation is not synonymous with gender.
gender-nonconforming (adj.) Acceptable in broad references as a term for people who do not conform to gender expectations. The group is providing scholarships for gender-nonconforming students. When talking about individuals, be specific about how a person describes or expresses gender identity and behavior. Roberta identifies as both male and female. Not synonymous with transgender. Use other terms like bigender (a term for people who identify as a combination of two genders) or agender (people who identify as having no gender) only if used by subjects to describe themselves, and only with explanation.
heterosexual (n. and adj.) In males, a sexual orientation that describes attraction to females, and vice versa. Straight is acceptable. Transgender people can be heterosexual.
homophobia, homophobic Acceptable in broad references or in quotations to the concept of fear or hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. The governor denounced homophobia. In individual cases, be specific about observable actions; avoid descriptions or language that assumes motives. The leaflets contained an anti-gay slur. The voters opposed same-sex marriage. Related terms include biphobia (fear or hatred specifically of bisexuals) and transphobia (fear or hatred of transgender people).
homosexual (adj.), homosexuality (n.) Refers to the sexual orientations of gay and/or lesbian. Gay and lesbian is preferred as an adjective; homosexuality is acceptable when an umbrella term is needed. Avoid homosexual as a noun.
intersex Describes people born with genitalia, chromosomes or reproductive organs that don’t fit typical definitions for males or females. Gonzalez is an intersex person who identifies as female. Zimmerman is intersex.
LGBT, LGBTQ (adj.) Acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer. In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters explained. I generally stands for intersex, and A can stand for asexual (a person who doesn't experience sexual attraction), ally (some activists dislike this use of the abbreviation for a person who is not LGBT but who actively supports LGBT communities) or both. Use of LGBT or LGBTQ is best as an adjective and an umbrella term. Don't use it, for instance, when the group you're referring to is limited to bisexuals. Walters joined the LGBTQ business association. Queer is an umbrella term covering people who are not heterosexual or cisgender and is acceptable for people and organizations that use the term to identify themselves. Do not use it when intended as a slur.
nonbinary People are nonbinary if their gender identity is not strictly male or female. Not synonymous with transgender. Explain in a story if the context doesn't make it clear.
out, outing Refers to public knowledge of a person’s homosexuality, bisexuality or gender transition. Brianna McSmith came out as lesbian; Gus Rubenstein came out of the closet; Sam Robinson came out as transgender. Outing or outed is usually used when a person’s status is revealed against one’s knowledge or will. Do not use terms like avowed or admitted. Use the term openly only if needed to draw a distinction. Don’t assume that because news figures address their sexuality publicly, it qualifies as coming out; public figures may consider themselves out even if they haven’t previously addressed their orientation publicly.
pronouns Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence by defaulting to he/his/him. Usually it is possible, and always preferable, to reword the sentence to avoid gender: Reporters try to protect their sources.
In most cases, a plural pronoun such as they, them or their should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is the priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.
Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with unspecified/unknown gender (the victim, the winner). In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or who ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.
Examples of rewording: Hendricks said the new job is a thrill (instead of Hendricks said Hendricks is thrilled about the new job or Hendricks said they are thrilled about the new job). Lowry’s partner is Dana Adams, an antiques dealer. They bought a house last year (instead of Lowry and Lowry’s partner bought a house last year or Lowry and their partner bought a house last year).
When they is used in the singular, it takes a plural verb: Taylor said they need a new car. (Again, be sure it’s clear from the context that only one person is involved.)
The singular reflexive themself is acceptable only if needed in constructions involving people who identify as neither male nor female. Again, it’s usually possible and always best to rephrase. Dana Adams was not available for comment (instead of Dana Adams did not make themself available for comment).
same-sex marriage The preferred term over gay marriage, because the laws generally don’t address sexual orientation. In places where it’s legal, same-sex marriage is no different from other marriages, so the term should be used only when germane and needed to distinguish from marriages between male-female heterosexual couples. Gertrude Boxer and Savannah Boxer dated for several years before their marriage in 2014. Sex is not synonymous with gender.
sex reassignment or gender confirmation The treatments, surgeries and other medical procedures used by transgender people to match their sex to their gender. The preferred term over gender reassignment; do not use the outdated term sex change. Sex reassignment or gender confirmation surgery is not necessary for people to transition their gender.
transgender (adj.) Describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were identified as having at birth. Does not require what are often known as sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures. Identify people as transgender only if pertinent, and use the name by which they live publicly. Generally, avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, since it’s an unnecessary detail and excludes intersex babies. Bernard is a transgender man. Christina is transgender. The shorthand trans is acceptable on second reference and in headlines: Grammys add first man and first trans woman as trophy handlers.
Do not use as a noun, such as referring to someone as a transgender, or use the term transgendered. Not synonymous with terms like cross-dresser or drag queen, which do not have to do with gender identity. Do not use the outdated term transsexual.
Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.
transition, gender transition The processes transgender people go through to match their gender identity, which may include sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures, but not necessarily. Washington is transitioning while helping his daughter consider universities. Chamberlain’s family offered support during her transition.
woman, women Use female as an adjective, not woman. She is the first female governor of North Carolina.
Treatment of the sexes should be evenhanded and free of assumptions and stereotypes. This does not mean that valid and acceptable words such as mankind or humanity cannot be used.
Intersectionality (from Northwestern, the Family Institute):
Intersectionality, is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”
Recent efforts aimed at addressing intersectionality, specifically among people of Latin American descent, include the introduction of the word “Latinx,” which is defined by researchers as “an inclusive term that recognizes the intersectionality of sexuality, language, immigration, ethnicity, culture, and phenotype.” Additionally, the inclusion of “x” in Latinx removes the need for gender specifics found in Latina/o.
Include racial or ethnic details only when they are clearly relevant. From the AP stylebook: “Consider carefully when deciding whether to identify people by race. Often, it is an irrelevant factor, and drawing unnecessary attention to someone’s race or ethnicity can be interpreted as bigotry.”
Aboriginal Capitalize when referring to people.
Black (adj.) Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges. African American is acceptable for an American black person of African descent. Ask your sources their preference.
Black(s), white(s) (n.) Do not use either term as a singular noun. For plurals, phrasing such as Black people, white people, Black teachers, white students is often preferable when clearly relevant. Black officers account for 47% of the police force and white officers nearly 43%.
brown (adj.) Lowercase as a description of people. Be more specific when possible. Brown does not represent a distinct culture as it can apply to many groups, including people from southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.
dual heritage No hyphen (a change in 2019 from previous style) for terms such as African American, Asian American and Filipino American, used when relevant to refer to an American person’s heritage.
people of color, racial minority The terms people of color and racial minority/minorities are generally acceptable terms to describe people of races other than white in the United States. Avoid using the initials POC. When talking about just one group, be specific: Chinese Americans or members of the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, for example. Be mindful that some Native Americans say the terms people of color and racial minority fall short by not encompassing their sovereign status. Avoid referring to individuals or groups as minorities unless in a quotation.
biracial, multiracial Acceptable, when clearly relevant, to describe people with more than one racial heritage. Usually more useful when describing large, diverse groups of people than individuals. Avoid mixed-race.
Indigenous Capitalize when referring to people; lowercase when referring to plants and animals.
Latino, Latina, Latinx, Hispanic Follow your source's preference. Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective for a person or people from, or whose ancestors were from, a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America and the U.S. Southwest, a former Spanish colonial region dating back to the 1500s. Latina is the feminine form. For groups of females, use the plural Latinas; for groups of males or of mixed gender, use the plural Latinos. Hispanics is also generally acceptable for those in the U.S. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Mexican American. Latinx is intended to be a gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina. Use your source’s preferred terms.
Hispanic A person from—or whose ancestors were from—a Spanish-speaking land or culture. Latino, Latina or Latinx are sometimes preferred. Follow the person’s preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican or Mexican American.
American Indians, Native Americans Both are acceptable terms in general references for those in the U.S. when referring to two or more people of different tribal affiliations. For individuals, use the name of the tribe; if that information is not immediately available, try to obtain it. He is a Navajo commissioner. She is a member of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Some tribes and tribal nations use member; others use citizen. If in doubt, use citizen. Avoid words such as wampum, warpath, powwow, teepee, brave, squaw, chief, etc., which can be disparaging and offensive. In Alaska, the Indigenous groups are collectively known as Alaska Natives.
First Nation The preferred term for native tribes in Canada. Indian is used to describe the peoples and cultures of the South Asian nation of India. Do not use the term Indian as a shorthand for American Indians.
tribe Refers to a sovereign political entity, communities sharing a common ancestry, culture or language, and a social group of linked families who may be part of an ethnic group. Capitalize the word tribe when part of a formal name of sovereign political entities, or communities sharing a common ancestry, culture or language. Identify tribes by the political identity specified by the tribe, nation or community: the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation.
racially charged, racially motivated, racially tinged Avoid using these vague phrases to describe situations in which race is or is alleged or perceived to be a central issue, but that do not meet the definition of racist or racism. As alternatives, terms including xenophobic, bigoted, biased, nativist or racially divisive may be clearer, depending on the context.
white Lowercase. From the Associated Press:
White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color. . . . (C)apitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs. . . . We will closely watch how usage and thought evolves, and will periodically review our decision.