Sensitive subjects

Preferred language

Use fairness, sensitivity and good taste when identifying age, colour, creed, nationality, personal appearance, religion, sex and any other heading under which a person or a group may feel slighted.

Indigenous Peoples

In Canada, there are three distinct Indigenous groups under Sec. 35 of the Constitution: First Nations, Inuit and Métis (people of mixed European and native origin).

Collectively, they are known variously as Indigenous Peoples, Aboriginal Peoples, original peoples, First Peoples, Aboriginals, Indigenous people and other variations.

The preferred term is Indigenous people. Not all Indigenous people on reserve are considered status and not all non-status Indigenous people live outside of reserves.


When talking about people with disabilities, mention the disability only if it is relevant. If uncertain what term to use, ask the individual his or her preference.

Avoid the use of emotional descriptives, such as "afflicted," "stricken" and "confined."

The rule of thumb is: put the person before the disability. Use "persons with disabilities," "people with disabilities" etc., rather than "the disabled" or "the handicapped."

NOTE: "handicap" is the correct term when referring to the Human Rights Code. The code prohibits discrimination on the basis of handicap.

Ethnicity, race, religion

Reference to a person’s race, religion or ethnicity should be avoided unless it is of particular relevance to the context.

Avoid equating bad, depressing or negative things with blackness. For example, avoid such terms as:

  • a black mood
  • blackball
  • blackmail
  • black magic
  • black market
  • black sheep
  • a dark/black day
  • a black heart
  • black listed
  • the pot calling the kettle black

Avoid stereotypes, generalizations or assumptions about ethnic or racial groups.

Respect labels preferred by specific racial or ethnic groups and only use if necessary. For example:

  • Black peoples
  • people of African descent
  • Africans
  • First Nation peoples
  • Aboriginal peoples
  • South Asian
  • East Asian
  • South East Asian
  • Middle Eastern
  • North African

Avoid using phrases such as "on the warpath", "Indian giver" etc.

Avoid using words like "Gestapo", "concentration camp" and "Hitler" casually. Try to use these words only in reference to the Second World War.


Avoid male or female pronouns when referring to groups composed of both men and women or of unspecified gender.

Use the pronouns preferred by an individual/subject. They may prefer she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, or another set of gender-inclusive pronouns.

Also try to avoid the use of word combinations such as him and her, his/her, and s/he.

Use of the plural form of the noun with the relevant pronoun is often the simplest way to avoid sexist language. There are many alternatives to gender-biased language.

See also Talking Gender by Ruth King et al., and Handbook of Nonsexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift.

  • Gil Dalton is the chair (not chairman) of the Board of Regents.
  • Professor Latimer worked in the fishing industry (not was a fisherman) before deciding on an academic career.

When referring to two groups of opposite sexes, use parallel language.

  • men and women
  • ladies and gentlemen (but not men and ladies)
  • husband and wife (not man and wife)
  • men’s and women’s varsity basketball teams (not men’s and girls’)

Unless the role of wife, mother, sister or daughter is important to the context, avoid identifying women in these terms. Marital status should also not be noted, unless pertinent.

Physical descriptions should not be included unless they are relevant to the story. Neither men nor women should be stereotyped.

For instance, avoid describing women only in terms of physical attributes if men are described by mental attributes or career status.

Don’t write:

  • James Carrera is a respected geologist, and his wife Anna is a striking blonde.

Rather, write:

  • Both the Carreras are highly respected in their fields. Anna is a well-known musician and James is a respected geologist.

Avoid stereotyping careers or jobs.
Don’t write:

  • Housewives are paying more.


  • Shoppers are paying more.

Depict men and women equally in terms of physical prowess or mental ability. Don’t automatically ascribe particular emotions or feelings to women and actions to men, or vice versa; men can be sensitive and women physically active. Depict men and women equally in the workplace.

Commonly used words to avoid Suggested alternatives
blackball ostracize, disapprove, reject
blacklist condemn, ostracize, boycott
blackmail extort, threaten, demand
black sheep reprobate, backslider
black market underground economy, deals on the side
businessman business person
chairman Chair, co-ordinator, convenor
cleaning woman cleaner
clergyman clergy, deacon, minister, pastor, priest, rabbi
coloured people Black peoples, people of African descent, South Asian peoples
common man average person, members of the public
craftsman artisan, craftsperson
crippled persons or people with a disability
the disabled persons or people with disabilities
East Indian South Asian
fair sex women
fireman firefighter
forefathers ancestors
gentleman/gentlemen man/men
girl/girls (referring to adult females) woman/women
the handicapped persons or people with disabilities
housewife homemaker
lady/ladies (referring to adult females) woman/women
layman layperson, average person
low man/woman on the totem pole lowest rung on the ladder
man in the street public person in the street, public, member of the public
man the phones staff the phones, handle the phones
man hours working hours
manpower personnel, staff, staffing requirements, workers, workforce
mankind civilization, humanity, people
man-made synthetic, artificial
master/mistress of ceremonies host, emcee
middleman wholesaler, go-between
newsman journalist, reporter
non-whites people of colour
orientals Asian peoples, East Asian peoples, Southeast Asian peoples
physically challenged physically disabled
policeman officer, police officer
postman postal worker, mail carrier
primitive societies non-industrial societies
right-hand man assistant
salesman clerk, sales rep
spokesman spokesperson, representative, speaker, official
stewardess flight attendant
tribes ethnic groups
West Indian Caribbean
wives and children families/family
workman worker