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 avoidSuggested alternatives
blackballostracize, disapprove, reject
blacklistcondemn, ostracize, boycott
blackmailextort, threaten, demand
black sheepreprobate, backslider
black marketunderground economy, deals on the side
businessmanbusiness person
chairmanChair, co-ordinator, convenor
cleaning womancleaner
clergymanclergy, deacon, minister, pastor, priest, rabbi
coloured peopleBlack peoples, people of African descent, South Asian peoples
common manaverage person, members of the public
craftsmanartisan, craftsperson
crippledpersons or people with a disability
the disabledpersons or people with disabilities
East IndianSouth Asian
fair sexwomen
girl/girls (referring to adult females)woman/women
the handicappedpersons or people with disabilities
lady/ladies (referring to adult females)woman/women
laymanlayperson, average person
low man/woman on the totem polelowest rung on the ladder
man in the streetpublic person in the street, public, member of the public
man the phonesstaff the phones, handle the phones
man hoursworking hours
manpowerpersonnel, staff, staffing requirements, workers, workforce
mankindcivilization, humanity, people
man-madesynthetic, artificial
master/mistress of ceremonieshost, emcee
middlemanwholesaler, go-between
newsmanjournalist, reporter
non-whitespeople of colour
orientalsAsian peoples, East Asian peoples, Southeast Asian peoples
physically challengedphysically disabled
policemanofficer, police officer
postmanpostal worker, mail carrier
primitive societiesnon-industrial societies
right-hand manassistant
salesmanclerk, sales rep
spokesmanspokesperson, representative, speaker, official
stewardessflight attendant
tribesethnic groups
West IndianCaribbean
wives and childrenfamilies/family


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