Whether you’re writing for an internal or external audience, it’s important to write for and about other people in a way that’s compassionate, inclusive, and respectful. Being aware of the impact of your language will help make Skylight a better place to work and a better steward of our values in the world.
In this section, we’ll lay out some guidelines for writing about people with compassion, and share some resources for further learning.
Use lowercase for “audience” unless it’s grammatically necessary (for example, capitalize at the beginning of a sentence).
Audiences are made up of real people, so always use “they.” Avoid referring to an audience as “it.”
Avoid referencing a person’s age unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing. If it is relevant, include the person’s specific age, offset by commas.
The CEO, 16, just got her driver’s license.
Avoid referring to people using age-related descriptors like “young,” “old,” or “elderly.”
Avoid disability-related idioms like “lame” or “falling on deaf ears.” Before referring to a person’s disability, think about whether it’s relevant to what you’re writing. If you need to mention it, ask whether your subject prefers person-first language (“they have a disability”) or identity-first language (“they are disabled”).
When writing about a person with disabilities, avoid the words “suffer,” “victim,” or “handicapped.”
Gender and sexuality
Avoid using “guys” to refer to mixed-gender groups. Don’t call women “girls.”
Avoid gendered terms in favor of neutral alternatives, like “server” instead of “waitress” and “businessperson” instead of “businessman.”
We support using “they” or “their” as singular pronouns.
Use the following words as modifiers, not as nouns:
- transgender (never “transgendered”)
For example, “transgender person,” “queer person,” or “lesbian woman.”
Avoid these words in reference to LGBT people or communities:
Avoid “same-sex” marriage, unless the distinction is relevant to what you’re writing. (Avoid “gay marriage.”) Otherwise, it’s just “marriage.”
When writing about a person, use their communicated pronouns. When in doubt, just ask or use their name.
Use “deaf” as an adjective to describe a person with significant hearing loss. You can also use “partially deaf” or “hard of hearing.”
Avoid referring to decisions or actions as “tone deaf.” Instead, use alternatives that more clearly express your idea (for example, “misinformed” or “disconnected”).
Avoid using words, images, or situations that reinforce racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes (even stereotypes that may appear to be positive). Avoid the term “non-white,” or other terms that treat whiteness as a default.
Ask how people identify themselves, and be aware of complexities within racial, ethnic, and religious identities. For example, not all Arabs are Muslim, and many nationalities and ethnicities include various religious practices and traditions.
When referring to a person’s race or ethnicity, use adjectives, not nouns (for example, “a Hispanic person,” not “a Hispanic”).
Avoid using hyphens when referring to someone with dual heritage or nationality. For example, use “Asian American” instead of “Asian-American.”
Avoid referencing a person’s medical condition unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing.
If a reference to a person’s medical condition is warranted, use the same rules as writing about people with physical disabilities and emphasize the person first. Don’t call a person with a medical condition a “victim.”
Mental and cognitive conditions
Avoid referencing a person’s mental or cognitive condition unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing. Avoid describing someone as “mentally ill.” Never assume that someone has a medical, mental, or cognitive condition.
If a reference to a person’s mental or cognitive condition is warranted, use the same rules as writing about people with physical disabilities or medical conditions and emphasize the person first.
Avoid using “citizen” as a generic term for people who live in the United States. Many government programs serve non-citizens and individuals with a wide range of immigration and visa statuses.
- How you refer to the public is largely dependent on context. Feel free to choose from any of these words: “people,” “the public,” “users,” or “folks.”
- Be as specific as possible. Depending on the situation, you may want to say something like “people who need healthcare” or “people who need to access government services online.”
- Use “citizens” for information related to U.S. citizenship, for example, when describing who is eligible to vote in federal elections.
- Be careful with “Americans” or the “American public.” These terms are ambiguous and are often used as synonyms for “citizens.” In most cases, “the public” is equally clear and more inclusive. That said, referring to “Americans” or the “American people” can be useful if you want to inspire readers or take a more patriotic tone.
At Skylight, when we write about a culture or ethnicity, we capitalize the name. For example, we capitalize Black as it refers to Americans in the African diaspora while we keep white lowercase since white refers to the color of a person’s skin and not a group of people.
Use the adjective “blind” to describe a person who is unable to see. Use “low vision” to describe a person with limited vision (for example, “person with low vision”).