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Writing about People

This guide was developed by the City of Oakland. They nailed it, so we pretty much just copied and pasted it.

Writing about People

No matter who you are writing for, 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.

Community Members

We want to reflect and honor that diversity with our language choices. We refer to our constituency as “community members” instead of “citizens.” ​We serve residents, business owners and visitors. Unless we are talking about a service that is explicitly only available to US citizens, we don’t use the word citizen City services are in the vast majority of cases available to people without regard to their citizenship status. Businesses choose their customers, but it is the mission of government to serve everyone in an equitable way. As a result, we avoid referring to our constituents as “citizens,” “customers” or “consumers.” Refer to the people we serve as:

  • “San Rafaelites”
  • “Community members”
  • “Constituents”
  • “Community”
  • “Residents” and/or “Business owners

Gender-Neutral Text

Make sure the text is gender-neutral wherever possible.

  • No: A resident should take out his or her trash.”
  • Yes: “Residents should take out their trash.”

Gender and Sexuality

When you write about groups of people use gender-inclusive language.

  • No: Describing groups of people as “guys.”
  • No: Describing groups of women as “girls.”

When possible, use neutral terms instead of gendered alternatives.

  • Yes: Server
  • No: Waitress
  • Yes: Businessperson
  • No: Businessman

It’s OK to use “they” as a singular pronoun.

Use the following words as modifiers, but never as nouns:

  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Bisexual
  • Transgender
  • Trans
  • Queer

Don’t use the phrase “same-sex” marriage unless the distinction is important to what you’re writing. If the distinction is not important to what you are writing, you should just use the term marriage. When writing about a person, use their preferred pronouns. If you’re uncertain, just use their name.


Only reference a person’s age when it is relevant to what you’re writing. If it is relevant to your content, you can include your subjects specific age, offset by commas.

If someone is quoted as saying, “I’m too old to go back to school,” the age is relevant. Generally, you may use age in profiles, obituaries, significant career milestones and achievements unusual for the age. Do not use age for sources commenting or providing information in an official capacity. You may use appropriate background information like the “mother of two young children” or “a World War II veteran” instead of the person’s chronological age. Always get permission from the subject of your writing before you use personal information to describe publicly.

  • Yes: The CEO, 16, just got her driver’s license.
  • No: The CEO is 35 and enjoys sailing.


Only reference a person’s disability when it is relevant to what you’re writing. If you must mention it, always emphasizes the person before the disability. When writing about a person with disabilities, don’t use the words “suffer,” “victim” or “handicapped.”

  • Yes: “She has a disability.”
  • No: “She is disabled.”
  • Yes: “People with disabilities”
  • No: “Disabled people” Do not use negative language to describe someone who uses a wheelchair
  • Yes: “Wheelchair User”
  • Yes: “People use wheelchairs for independent mobility.”
  • No: “confined to a wheelchair”
  • No: “wheelchair-bound”


Capitalize the word “Deaf” when you are referring to the to the “Deaf Community.”


You may use the adjective “blind” to describe a person who identifies as having almost complete vision loss or lack of vision. Use “low vision” to describe a person who identifies as having limited vision.

Mental or Cognitive Conditions

If you are writing about a person who has a mental, cognitive, or neurological condition, do not use negative or judgemental language.  Do not use any of the following terms as they are offensive and contrary to the policies and values of the City of San Rafael: insane, mentally ill, brain damaged, crazy, nuts or deranged, dumb, retarded, and other similarly inflammatory language.

Do not correlate mental illness with violent crime.

If you would like more guidance on how to write about people with various forms of disability, look at the National Center on Disability and Journalism Style Guide.

Race and Ethnicity

Only identify a person by race when it is pertinent as in biographical and announcement stories that involve significant, groundbreaking or historical events, such as being elected U.S. president, being named to the U.S. Supreme Court or other notable events.

  • Barack Obama is the first Black U.S. president.
  • Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Jeremy Lin is the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent.

Nationalities, peoples, races and tribes should always be capitalized.

If you need additional guidance about how to write about people check out the Diversity Style Guide.

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