Caption: Cover art of A Progressive’s Style Guide by Hanna Thomas (SumOfUs.org) and Anna Hirsch (ActivistEditor.com), which shows the faces of people from diverse backgrounds and identities.
Language is a key ingredient in a winning theory ofchange. Language can build bridges and change minds. By acknowledging the ability of language to shape and reflect reality, progressive campaigns can become more powerful vehicles for social change, inclusion, and justice. In fact, understanding and applying the authentic language of the individuals and communities with whom we work can be a
revolutionary act in itself.
People-first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. People-first language views other descriptive social identities that people may hold as secondary and non-essential. Strict adherence to people-first language can lead to awkward sentence construction and may not align with reclamations of social identities, but we maintain that attuning to our shared humanity by telling stories that center people first, rather than exploiting identities, should be an aim of progressive writing.
Wherever categorization and labels are used to oppress groups of people, self-identification becomes an act of resistance. At the same time, people who are robbed of opportunities to self-identify lose not just words that carry political power, but may also lose aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit. Progressive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that reflects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. If you aren’t sure, ask.
A grammatical voice in many languages, active voice puts the “actor” of the sentence in the role of performing the action. Often lauded for contributing to more dynamic writing, active voice may also be key to naming perpetrators of violence and harm directly. An opportunity to scan for active voice should be taken as an opportunity to root out implicit bias toward status quo systems of power by naming the actors of oppression, whether human, institutional, or cultural.
Names used for and by individual places, persons, and organizations convey respect, understanding, acceptance, and clarity. At the same time, common nouns and pronouns can dilute an issue or simply create confusion. While conversational tone is often well utilized in campaign writing, great care should be taken to avoid misleading readers. For example, overuse of words such as “it,” “that,” and “this” may leave the reader wondering who the writer is talking about at a critical point in the story.
Issue Area: Age
Adultism is a system of beliefs, attitudes, and actions – fueled by institutional power – so pervasive that nearly everyone experiences this form of oppression. Children’s rights movements early on centered around reforming unhealthy and destructive child labor practices, but have come to encompass all forms of oppression that devalue and dehumanize young people. To include young people in society it is vital to use language that views youth as contributors, that does not denigrate youth experiences, and that does not dismiss their ideas. It is appropriate to consider developmental stages, but do not use a lack of knowledge about human development to avoid involving young people. Perhaps the greatest injustice young people face is being silenced, overlooked, and left out of progressive social justice work all together.
Ageism is a system of beliefs, attitudes, and actions, fueled by institutional power, that oppresses all people at all ages, but is considered most detrimental for the physical health of our oldest citizens. Ageists view a person’s age number or chronological age as a marker of essential characteristics or type, leading to stereotyping and suppressing the experience and true nature of individuals. To ensure that people of all ages have a voice in society it is vital to reject a purely “age-number” framing of life stage, to always use medical terminology accurately, and to use narratives that support people of all ages building power.
- Most times there is no need to refer to a person’s age. When the need arises, list the specific age number, rather than assigning a category that may be vague and create negative connotations.
- Whenever possible, ask the preferred terminology. One person may prefer “senior,” while another person with the same age number may prefer “older adult.”
- Avoid using age-related terminology to describe a situation metaphorically, especially if the phrasing is meant as an insult or is used flippantly.
- Do not use language that patronizes, sentimentalizes, distorts, or ignores people based on their age number.
- Avoid negative, value-laden terms that overextend the limitations of a young person’s developmental stage or the severity of an older person’s health.
- Do not assume that someone who is older is living with a disability.
Terms used by anti–adultism and anti-ageism activists
- adolescent (if describing the developmental stage of adolescence: “adolescent young people”)
- age apartheid
- elder abuse
- elderly person
- older person
- people over . . .
- people under . . .
- student (if context-appropriate)
- transitional age youth (legal definition in U.S.)
- young person
Terms avoided/questioned by anti-adultism and anti-ageism activists
- emerging adult
- geriatric (unless in the phrase “geriatric medicine” or similar instances)
- old lady/man
- over the hill
- senile (unless talking about the specific medical condition of senility)
- the aged
- the elderly
- the old
Contents of Full Guide
Download the full guide for other issue areas including disability, economy, environment/science, food, gender/sex, geopolitics, health, housing/space, immigration/refugees, indigeneity/ancestry, police/incarceration, race/ethnicity, sexual and domestic violence.