Business Writing Tip #30 – Choose Your Words Carefully

In previous tips we have looked at words. We’ve considered using short words instead of long words, single words instead of many, concrete and specific words instead of generalities, and the need to watch out for words that are easily confused.

In this tip we’ll look at one major consideration when it comes to word choice in business writing. This one isn’t about readability.


Discrimination is a major issue in the business world. We need to avoid words that discriminate against sex, race, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and age. The challenge is that many of the words we use are so ingrained in our culture that we don’t think twice about using them. And when we do, we don’t mean any harm. But it is important to think about this issue and choose our words carefully.

  • Use gender-neutral words. Instead of chairman, use chair or chairperson. Instead of policeman write police officer. Instead of air hostess, try cabin crew. Bar staff instead of barman…
  • Watch out for your use of pronouns. Avoid the use of masculine pronouns to refer to both sexes. Use plural pronouns instead (purists may say that this is a little clumsy, but I consider discrimination is a bigger issue than slightly clumsy grammar). Or you can use he/she, she or he, he or she, s/he. You’ll find plenty of debate of the singular use of they and very little agreement. That said, it is widely accepted in business writing
  • Some professional roles have been traditionally filled by men (e.g. engineers, doctors, barristers). Take extra care with your pronouns when you are referring to these and avoid the automatic use of he or him
  • There are words in English which suggest male dominance. Think about man-made, or the use of the generic term man to refer to the human race. Try manufactured or humanity
  • When it comes to disabilities, many words that were previously accepted are now regarded as inappropriate. Words that spring to mind include handicapped and retarded
  • The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has published an excellent paper, ‘Guidelines for Discussing People with Disabilities in Quality of Life Grant Applications’. In this paper the foundation suggest putting the person first, not their disability. For example, the child with a physical disability rather than the physically disabled child

It’s quite simple really. In business writing avoid using words that imply a judgement or bias, and that are insensitive to the gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or disability.

For a fuller discussion of the issues and excellent guidance see The University of Melbourne’s publication Watch Your Language.

6 thoughts on “Business Writing Tip #30 – Choose Your Words Carefully

    • You can, but you do risk causing offence. Perhaps only use it with people you know very well :-))

  1. Thanks for the tip retard. I will keep that in mind in the future. Your blog has been of great help.

    • It’s a good thing I know you well! Glad the blog’s been helpful. Apart from your blatant use of non-inclusive language, I know that your written English skills are excellent 🙂

  2. thanks a lot for the tips on how to address an individual, coz many pple tend to be offended if you address them improperly e.g when you say policeman whereas the person is a he/she.

  3. thanks a lot for your tips ithelps a lot in improving our communication such that in the process noone will feel offended when addressing others coz i now know the correct ways of addressing.