SUNY Geneseo is committed to cultivating a community that respects difference and promotes a sense of inclusion and belonging. (For more, read the Community Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.) This commitment extends to the language we use in our professional communication. The words people use to describe others are often unintentionally but unquestionably based on implicit cultural biases. They can be insensitive to cultural differences or exclusionary or offensive to a group of people (based on their ability/disability, race or ethnicity, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation, etc.). This guide is intended to promote greater intentionality and accuracy of language in print and online communications, as well as contribute to an overall climate of inclusion.
Abilities and Disabilities
Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to the story and when the diagnosis comes from a reputable source, typically a medical professional.
Ask for a person’s preference when possible. Some people prefer the term disabled person. Others prefer to emphasize the person first and then the disability:
- Person with a disability
- Person who uses a wheelchair
- Person with an intellectual (or developmental) disability (or delay)
Use accessible parking rather than handicapped parking.
Do not use the word normal to describe people without disabilities.
Avoid words with negative connotations, such as handicapped person, stricken, or victim. Use “someone living with ___”, such as someone living with depression or someone who has cerebral palsy.
People with almost complete vision loss are considered blind or legally blind (20/200 vision). Those who have partial sight may prefer the term low vision, limited vision, or visually impaired. If possible, ask for a person’s preference.
People who have total hearing loss are deaf. Those with partial hearing loss are hard of hearing. Again, ask for a person’s preference. When referring to Deaf culture or the Deaf community, the d is capitalized: Deaf.
For guidance on usage of specific terms, see the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s style guide or the Center for Disability’s Disability Writing and Journalism Guidelines.
Ethnic and Racial Designations
African American: a person of African origin. Some people who have generations of American ancestors prefer the term black (use lowercase, not Black). Do not use colored as a synonym.
American Indian or Native American: an indigenous person in the U.S. Follow the person’s preference. Where possible, use the name of the tribe. Other terms: First Nation, Indigenous person.
Asian American: a person of Asian origin (i.e., South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia).
Hispanic: a person of Spanish-speaking origin.
Latinx: a person of Latin American origin. Use instead of the gendered Latina or Latino.
Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, and tribes: Arab, African, American, Caucasian, Cherokee, Chinese, Eskimo, Filipino, French Canadian, Japanese, Jew, Jewish, Latin, etc.
Terms such as black and white, when referring to ethnicity, are usually lowercased unless a particular author—writing under their own name and not as the voice of SUNY Geneseo—prefers otherwise.
Use historically underrepresented racial groups or people of color instead of minorities. People of color are actually the majority in many large U.S. cities.
Do not use a hyphen (in either noun or adjective forms) in ethnic classifications such as African American or Italian American.
For guidance on usage of specific terms, see the National Association of Black Journalists or the Conscious Style Guide’s Ethnicity, Race, and Nationality resources.
Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
Agender: a person who does not identify with any gender, or who identifies as neutral or genderless.
Bisexual: a person who is sexually or romantically attracted to more than one gender.
Cisgender: a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gay or lesbian: people who are attracted to members of the same sex. Use instead of homosexual.
Gender: a person’s internal sense of feeling like a woman, man, both, or neither.
Gender expression: the appearance, traits, and mannerisms a person presents to communicate their gender identity. Gender expression may or may not match biological sex.
Gender fluid: a person whose identity shifts among genders. Overlaps with terms such as genderqueer and bi-gender.
Gender identity: a person’s feeling about, relationship with, and understanding of gender as it pertains to their sense of self. An individual’s gender identity may or may not be related to their biological sex.
Intersex: a person who was born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female or male.
LGBTQ+: refers to people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, agender, or asexual. Use the initials alone on first reference if writing for an informed audience. If not, use this on first reference: LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and other sexual and gender minorities).
Nonbinary: a person who does not identify, or identify solely, as either a woman or a man. Other nonbinary terms include but are not limited to agender, gender fluid, or gender nonconforming.
Queer: a traditionally offensive term reclaimed by some LGBTQ+ people to describe themselves. Some value the term for its defiance and because it includes the entire LGBTQ+ community.
Sex: comprises a person’s biological and physiological characteristics, including reproductive organs and hormones. Sex is assigned at birth and is not synonymous with gender.
Sexual orientation: innate sexual attraction. Use this instead of sexual preference, which implies a conscious choice, or sexuality, which refers to sexual activity generally. Do not mention orientation unless relevant.
Transgender: a person whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Use instead of transsexual or transvestite, both of which are outdated and considered offensive.
For guidance on usage of specific terms, see the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Stylebook or the Conscious Style Guide’s Gender, Sex, and Sexuality resources.
- If you are writing about a specific, known person, always use that person’s pronouns. If you don’t know their pronouns, ask.
- Avoid using he as a universal pronoun; likewise, avoid using binary alternatives such as he/she, he or she, or (s)he.
- The singular they is the most common nonbinary pronoun and is preferred by SUNY Geneseo. It includes all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.
- Use the singular they in two main cases: (1) when referring to a generic person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context, or (2) when referring to a specific, known person who uses they as their pronoun.
Usage for They
- Style guides endorse the use of the singular pronoun they, including when writing for publication (Chicago Manual of Style, 2017; Associated Press Stylebook, 2018; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2019).
- Like singular you, singular they is treated as a grammatical plural and takes a plural verb.
- Their favorite color is blue.
- They have a degree in biology.
- Themself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).
- They blamed themself [or themselves].
Non-Gendered Language Usage
- Use alum/alums (gender neutral) when referring to a person or persons whose gender is unknown, or to a known person who uses non-binary pronouns.
- Use alumnus/alumni (men) or alumna/alumnae (women) when referring to a specific person or persons with known binary genders.
- Use alums when referring to a mixed-gender group or a group where gender has not been specified. Alumni, despite its masculine roots, has become de-gendered in common usage when referring to a mixed group and is considered an acceptable alternative to the preferred alums. We recognize that certain formal titles (Alumni Association, Office of Alumni Relations) will retain the use of alumni.
- Avoid honorific titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., etc. Use first and last name followed by their role if the person does not have a professional title: Jane Doe, administrative assistant. Use professional titles such as dean, professor, president when appropriate. Only use Dr. for a physician, not a PhD.
- Avoid gender-binary references like ladies and gentlemen or men and women when referring to everyone in a group. Use an alternative greeting, such as friends, visitors, or invited guests.
- Use last names, not first names, on a second reference to a person in narrative text. Using only a first name is considered disrespectful and should be saved for informal and private correspondence.
- Avoid defaulting to -man in descriptors. Avoid gendered nouns.
|guard, staff (v.)||man (v.)|
|partner, significant other, spouse||boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife|
|server, wait staff||waiter/waitress|
Strategies for avoiding gender-specific pronouns (he or she):
- Recast the sentence and make the subject and object plural.
- Each student must hand in his paper by 2 p.m. on Friday.
- BETTER: Students must hand in their papers by 2 p.m. on Friday.
- Omit the pronoun or use an article (e.g., the, a) instead of a pronoun.
- The cashier should call her manager when a customer asks to use an expired coupon.
- BETTER: The cashier should call the manager when a customer asks to use an expired coupon.
- Use the neutral pronoun one.
- A writer in Boston is likely to earn more than she will in Syracuse.
- BETTER: A writer in Boston is likely to earn more than one in Syracuse.
Strategies for writing when the gender is unknown:
- Refer to the person using a descriptive word or phrase: the Beowulf poet or the whistleblower.
- If the person’s name is known, keep using the name rather than substituting a pronoun. Rephrase as necessary to reduce the number of times you must repeat it.
- If you are writing about a public figure, research what others have written about that person and follow their lead. If you see multiple practices, imitate the ones that seem most respectful.