Instructional Leadership, emphasis: K-12 School Leadership (MEd)
NAU students clasp hands together

NAU Diversity Writing Style Guide

August, 2020, Adapted from The California State University Diversity Style Guide

Diversity: The complexity of personal experiences, values, and worldviews that arise from differences and intersections of culture and circumstance. Such differences and intersections include race, sex, ethnicity, age, religion, language, ability/disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, socioeconomic, veteran or other status, or geographic region.

Students during NAU commencement

As a diverse and inclusive public four-year institution of higher learning, it is the responsibility of Northern Arizona University to use language with care, consistency, and respect.

With this in mind, University Marketing, in collaboration with other campus communicators and stakeholders, has created a guide that attempts to address common questions that may arise when staff create or modify content that is about and/or speaks to particular groups of people.

Words matter, so this document will attempt to offer thoughtful, practical guidance in speaking to and about:

  • People who don’t identify with a specific gender
  • People of various races and ethnicities, including American Indian/Indigenous, African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Asian American, and Pacific Islander
  • People with disabilities, including mental health concerns
  • Students who are low-income and/or underserved
  • Individuals who are gay, transgender, and non-binary, as noted above
  • The older population

Each of these is a huge topic unto itself and the language around many of these groups is changing, in some cases very rapidly.

This guide is just a first step in what will be an ever-evolving document. This is why we need you—NAU employees who will use the style guide in your work—to offer direction, note important omissions, and ask questions.

If you have any feedback, please contact us.

Your input will ensure this document continually improves and accurately, fairly, and compassionately refers and speaks to our many and varied audiences.


Gender is not synonymous with sex. According to Merriam-Webster, “a clear delineation between sex and gender is typically prescribed, with sex as the preferred term for biological forms, and gender limited to its meanings involving behavioral, cultural, and psychological traits. In this dichotomy, the terms male and female relate only to biological forms (sex), while the terms masculine/masculinity, feminine/femininity, woman/girl, and man/boy relate only to psychological and sociocultural traits (gender).

Since not everyone falls in the category of “male/man” or “female/woman,” in your writing, avoid references to both as inclusive of all people. Consider referring to a person or people or, if appropriate, including the term “non-binary” as a way to encompass all people.

Transgender refers to someone whose biology at birth does not match their gender identity. Transgender is an adjective (it must be modified by a noun such as person, artist, activist, etc.) A transgender man is someone who identifies as a man, but whose biology at birth was not male. A transgender woman is someone who identifies as a woman, but whose biology at birth was not female. Do not use transgender as a noun or use the term transgendered.

Exception: In federal reporting, such as terms used by the National Center for Education Statistics IPEDs, federal enrollment and graduation rates, sex and gender ARE used interchangeably and this data refers to “men” and “women” (not male and female).

Note: When interviewing someone or otherwise referring to someone, ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to (e.g., male, female, man, woman, transgender, gender fluid, binary, etc.). Ask, too, if there are any terms they ask not be used in reference to them and in what cases.

  • Freshman: Retain use because freshman/freshmen is so widely understood and a change would also naturally influence the related terms sophomore, junior and senior.
  • Alumna/us: A woman who has graduated from a school takes the Latin term alumna. To reference a man, alumnus is used. For two or more women, the proper term is alumnae. If two people who are both men or a man and a woman are referenced, the correct term is alumni. Although we generally avoid the use of the casual alum, it may be used in reference to a graduate who uses they/them pronouns.
  • Gender and race/ethnicity: Still under discussion are gender-neutral references for specific races and ethnicities. For example, Latinx to replace Latino/a or Filipinx as an alternative to Filipino/a. The language around these questions is rapidly changing, but currently, it is not thought that these alternatives are widely understood enough by most readers to be used in most cases. We recommend the continued use of Latino/a, Filipino/a, etc. However, you may use Lantinx for someone who doesn’t identify as male or female. Another option would be Latin heritage.
  • Gender-neutral pronouns: Since there is no gender-neutral term in English for a single person, and using one is typically overly formal for most types of writing, you may wonder about when to use he or she (or both, or if you should alternate he and she). This is an important question because part of writing inclusively is balancing references to genders.

If you can reword a sentence to avoid gender, that’s ideal. If that’s not possible, you may opt to use “they” or “their” to indicate that the gender of the individual referenced is either not known or the reference applies to any gender.

Consider using the suffix –person (e.g., spokesperson instead of spokesman) in your writing to avoid presuming maleness. Ask the person whose title you’re referencing what they prefer as well, if possible. Be aware, too, of words that use –ess and denote femaleness, such as actressor waitress. When possible, choose a gender-neutral alternate, such as actor or server.

The singular “they”: When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, they and its forms are often preferred. (“They” used in this sense was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2019.) Like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb. So when the context requires it, they/them/their/theirs, like you/your/yours (long used as both singular and plural forms), can be used to refer to one person {they have a degree in molecular biology} {their favorite color is blue}. In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.

When interviewing a subject, always ask them their preferred pronouns.

Another exception to avoid using only men/women or male/female (a binary reference) would be in a reference where men/women or male/female are necessary for accuracy, as in the case of a study that included men and women.

Gender: terms to avoid

  • Hermaphrodite (preferred term: intersex)
  • Normal/norm (to refer to people who are not transgender, gender-fluid, non-binary)
  • Sex change (preferred terms: sex reassignment, gender transition)
  • Sexual preference
  • Tranny
  • Transsexual
  • Transvestite (preferred term: cross-dresser)



LGBTQIA is an abbreviation for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual/aromantic/agender.” The “A” in LGBTQIA may also refer to “ally” or “allied,” meaning someone who does not identify as LGBTQIA but supports those who do.

LGBTQIA (all capital letters with no spaces or periods) is our preferred use.

Use as an adjective (it must be modified by a noun such as artist, activist, etc.)

On first reference, depending on your audience, explain what LGBTQIA stands for and use the abbreviation on subsequent mentions.

The word “queer” has historically been considered a slur, so you may want to avoid use of the word, limiting it to quotes, names of organizations, and instances when an individual indicates he/she/they would prefer it used in reference to themselves.

That said, queer has been reclaimed by some LGBTIA people to describe themselves; however, it is not a universally accepted term even within the LGBTIA community.

Queer can also be used in academic circles related to domain (e.g., queer studies) and or a range of post-structuralist theories that deal with the construction or reconstruction of sexuality and/or gender identity known as queer theory. Other variants, such as quare theory, consider the intersection of identities, such as race. In your writing, avoid comparisons that reflect a heteronormative bias—in other words, heterosexual/cisgender as “normal” or the norm.

Note: When interviewing someone or otherwise referring to a source or subject in your writing, ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, intersex, etc.) related to their gender and/or sexual identity. This may include identifications that are not common or specific. Ask, too, if there are any terms they ask not be used in reference to them and in what cases.

Note on the use of “transsexual” and “transgender”

The GLAAD Media Reference Guide notes that “transgender” is preferred to “transsexual” and the latter should not be used. That said, Dr. Benny LeMaster, a former lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Communication Studies at CSU Long Beach, notes that “transsexual is an acceptable term for folks who are transsexual. Some folks who seek to alter their body in some way may use transsexual and NOT transgender precisely because the politics that bar folks from altering their bodies on their terms. Transgender is the larger term while transsexual is the more local term for a smaller group of folks who fall under the larger transgender umbrella but who may not call themselves transgender.” When in doubt, try to find out how someone prefers to be referenced.

Cisgender, cis: A term used by some to describe people who are not transgender. “Cis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as,” and is therefore an antonym of “trans-.” The word cisgender distinguishes without assuming that cisgender is the neutral or normal state.

Reminders for reporting on and writing about LGBTQIA individuals, communities, or subjects:

  • If you’re covering research or new data, don’t refer to the findings as relevant to “the gay or LGBTQIA community” if the information only relates to, say, gay men.
  • Don’t conflate sex and gender; they aren’t the same thing.
  • When talking about marriage, make sure you’re using the person’s preferred term(s), whether partner, spouse, wife, husband or something else. Gay marriage and same-sex marriage are acceptable terms.
  • Pay close attention to how the person you’re talking to narrates their own story and follow their lead and cues when you write. If the person uses terms you don’t know, ask them to explain each so you’re sure to use it correctly. If there is particular sensitivity on the part of a source and/or topic, build in time for a source(s) to review their quotes for accuracy.

Reasons to ask—and reasons to refrain from asking

When is it appropriate to ask a subject to disclose his/her/their sexual orientation for a story? Is it ever?

Reasons to ask:

  • If it adds context to the story. Are you interviewing the person specifically because s/he/they is a member of the LGBTQIA community? If so, ask to confirm and ask how s/he identifies or they identify.
  • If it is central to the story. Would it seem out of place if you didn’t mention it? For example, if you’re covering same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination laws, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s relevant to include that the person is or could be directly affected by the events.
  • If it isn’t central to the story, what is your motivation for asking? Are you trying to add diversity to your story or highlight how different populations might be affected differently?

Reasons to avoid asking or telling:

  • If it would cause harm to the subject.
  • If it’s merely for prurient reasons or to sensationalize the story.
  • Would you include the information if the subject were heterosexual? If yes, include it for an LGBTQIA person. If not, think about why you want to include it; it must be relevant.

Pronoun use for transgender sources

If a source shares a transgender or gender-nonconforming identity, it is best practice to ask for preferred pronouns. Be cautious that a person’s pronouns may not correspond with the gender that may be associated with one’s name or appearance. Also, do not assume transgender status or include it if it is not germane to the story.

Note that sex, gender, and sexual orientation are not synonymous.

LGBTQIA: terms to avoid

  • Closeted (preferred: not out)
  • Gay community (preferred: LGBTQIA community)
  • Homosexual (preferred: gay or lesbian)
  • Openly gay (preferred: out)
  • Queer (see discussion above)
  • Lesbian woman (this is redundant; just say lesbian)
  • Lifestyle
  • MTF or FTM (use male to female/female to male transition unless an individual identifies themselves this way)
  • Sexual preference (preferred: sexual orientation)
  • Tranny
  • Trans (abbreviation for someone who is transgender; Transgender people identify as a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender woman was assigned to be male at birth; a transgender man was assigned to be female at birth.)
  • Transvestite (preferred: cross-dresser; cross-dressing does not necessarily indicate someone is gay or transgender)

For more terms, go to the GLAAD Media Reference Guide


People with disabilities

When writing about anyone with a disability—whether physical, intellectual, or psychological/emotional—always strive to adopt “people first” language. This means using words that put the person at the center of a description rather than a label, their status, or focusing on what the individual cannot do.

For example, you would refer to a “graduate student with epilepsy” but not a “graduate student who’s an epileptic.” As with any other area of sensitivity like this, please ask the individual how they prefer to be referred to and use this language as much as possible. Be sure if you are interviewing someone with a disability, whether visible or not, that they are aware of how much detail and information you will be sharing about their disability and/or ask them to review the content before it is published.

If the disability is not part of the story and there isn’t a need to include it, don’t.

Don’t refer to someone who does not have a disability as “able-bodied.” You can simply say they do not have a disability (or, if necessary, use “non-disabled”) when it’s necessary to distinguish that someone doesn’t have a disability. Avoid using the term “normal.”

Avoid sensationalizing a disability by using phrases like, but not limited to, “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” or “victim of.”

Use “accessible” when describing a space, location, or event that is modified to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

People with disabilities are typically not suffering from a disease or illness, therefore they should not be referred to as “patients,” unless under a healthcare setting.

To show inclusiveness and sensitivity to students, you may want to refer to them as “students who are receiving services,” which may include physical or mental help, or “students with a verified disability.”

People with disabilities: terms to avoid

  • Able-bodied or normal when referring to a person who does not have a disability
  • Afflicted with
  • Use autism spectrum, not autistic
  • Confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair-bound: Describes a person only in relation to a piece of equipment designed to liberate rather than confine.
  • Crazy, insane, nuts, psycho
  • Deaf and dumb/deaf-mute
  • Defect, birth defect, defective
  • Demented, senile
  • The Disabled (preferred: people with disabilities or disabled people)
  • Epileptic fit: The term seizure is preferred when referring to the brief manifestation of symptoms common among those with epilepsy.
  • Loony, loony bin, lunatic
  • Mentally retarded: This is an antiquated term and offensive. Always try to specify the type of disability being referenced. Otherwise, the terms mental disability, intellectual disability, and developmental disability are acceptable.
  • Midget: Although preferred terms vary by person and community, according to the Little People of America website, many people who experience dwarfism prefer the term “little person.” According to Little People of America, dwarfism is “a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4 ft 10 inches (145 cm) or shorter, among both men and women.” Unless physical stature is of relevance in a conversation, simply using a person’s name is appropriate.
  • Paraplegic: Avoid referring to an individual as a paraplegic. Instead, say the person has paraplegia.
  • Psychotic: Avoid using psychotic to describe a person; instead refer to a person as having a psychotic condition or psychosis.
  • Quadriplegic: Use people-first language, such as “a person with quadriplegia”
  • Schizophrenic: Use people-first language, stating that someone is “a person with schizophrenia” or “a person diagnosed with schizophrenia” rather than a schizophrenic or a schizophrenic person
  • Spastic, a spaz
  • Stricken with, suffers from, victim of
  • Vegetable
  • Wheelchair-bound (preferred: person who uses a wheelchair, wheelchair user)

Source: National Center on Disability and Journalism


Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are not the same. The US Census Bureau defines race as a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups, which can include white, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and/or Other Pacific Islander.

Federal statistical standards used by the Census and the National Center for Education Statistics, conceptualize a person’s ethnicity into one of two categories: Hispanic(or Latino/a/x) or Not Hispanic (Latino/a/x). If a person is Hispanic/Latino, they can self-report/identify as any race.

Federal regulations from 2007 about racial and ethnic data require institutions of higher education to collect and report a single, mutually exclusive major racial/ethnic group for students in federal collections (e.g., IPEDS). A key feature of this is that students who identify as Hispanic are reported as Hispanic, even if they self-identify under one or more racial categories. For clarity and consistency, NAU-published systemwide race/ethnicity data tends to follow the federal standard.

The fastest-growing demographics in the US are “Two or More Races,” the Asian population, and the Hispanic population. By 2044, there is expected to be no race or ethnic group in the US that represents a 50 percent or greater share of the population. In this style guide we attempt to provide basic guidance on style for:

  • African American / Black (the B in Black is now capitalized; African American is not hyphenated unless it’s used as an adjective)
  • Hispanic / Latino and related terms
  • Asian American and Pacific Islanders and related terms (no hyphen)
  • Native American and related terms (no hyphen)
  • Caucasian / white (the w in white is not capitalized)

Given the complexity and evolving nature of this topic, covering even the most common usage questions would make this section of the Diversity Style Guide unwieldy. That said, we want to continually update this section so it is as current, inclusive, and useful as possible. Please send us questions and suggestions for additions and changes.

General writing guidelines

  • Avoid stereotypes.
  • Place the humanity and leadership of people of color at the center.
  • Ensure that headlines, images, captions, and graphics are fair and responsible in their depiction of people of color and coverage of issues.
  • Use a multiracial lens and consider all communities of color.
  • Use racial and ethnic identification when it is pertinent to a story and use it fairly, identifying white individuals if people of other races/ethnicities are identified.

Source: Race Forward

Quick guidance

African American, Black

African American and Black are not synonymous. If you are including someone’s race in the content you’re creating, be sure it is necessary to mention it and ask the person how they prefer to be identified. A person may identify as Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean, for instance, or Haitian American or Jamaican American.

In an exception to current Chicago Style, NAU style capitalizes the B in Black. We do not, however, capitalize the w in white. The Columbia Journalism Review explains the distinction:

“At the Columbia Journalism Review, we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to groups in racial, ethnic, or cultural terms. Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.”

When African American functions as a noun or an adjective phrase following what it modifies, no hyphen is needed. When using the term as a phrasal adjective preceding the noun it modifies (e.g., an African-American woman), be sure to include a hyphen. Never use the word colored or Negro as a descriptor. Afro American is an archaic descriptor and should not be used.

In the body of a piece, it is preferred to use Black people and not Blacks to refer to a group.

Asian, Asian American

When writing about someone or a group of this background, ask the person how they prefer to be referred to. Specifically, if it makes more sense to refer to a specific background—e.g., Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino—use that term rather than a collective noun.

Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) This is the preferred term to use, versus Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), or Asian American Pacific Americans. The latter is not incorrect, but for consistency’s sake, we recommend the preferred use.

South Asian: This collective term refers to people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Desi American is a term commonly used by people from India, but not by all South Asians. Check with the source/individual to confirm how they prefer to be identified and ensure that identifying their race/ethnicity is essential to the content you’re creating.

American Indian, Alaska Native, Hawaiian Native, Native American, Native People, Indigenous People

American Indians and Alaska Natives are members of distinct sovereign nations constructed in and through treaties, executive orders, and the Constitution.

American Indian and Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian cultural identification is place-based, diverse, and informed by the practices of their culture (e.g., language, singing, dancing, ceremonies). A major distinction between these groups is that Native Hawaiians are not federally recognized.

Culture is not synonymous with “tribal communities” or “individuals.” The term “culture” should be avoided when referencing Native American groups because of the issue of “othering.” If a story is being written and culture is included, the identifying culture should be listed. Such as, “This student is dedicated to preserving White Mountain Apache culture.” As opposed to, “This student is dedicated to preserving Native American culture.” There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes and when American Indian culture is used to describe more than one group, it is a form of “othering.”

The most inclusive and accurate term to use to refer to those who inhabited land that became the United States (or, previously, territories) is: American Indian.

You may also see the terms:

  • Native American
  • Native People(s)
  • First People(s)
  • First Nations (refers to Indigenous people from Canada)
  • tribal communities
  • Indigenous People(s)

Only use these terms when describing groups of two or more individuals of different tribal affiliations.

Always ask someone how groups/individuals prefer to be identified. When writing about individuals, always refer to them by their tribally specific nation. If a tribal name is used, ask for a phonetic spelling of the name.

Indigenous people may also offer their cultural identifiers such as clan systems, if they want to offer their clan relationships it should be incorporated to some degree, clans are a way to identify themselves to the world and is part of their identity. It would be wise to ask the person/s involved to provide an index card with a translation with this information for future reference, especially if using an Indigenous language.

The term “Indian Country” is generally understood to describe reservations and areas with American Indian populations.

Alaska Native is an umbrella term that includes Inupiat, Yupik, Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Aleut. They are culturally distinct and not to be grouped with American Indian or Native American. As with American Indian, only use in reference to a group of two or more people with differing tribal affiliations. Otherwise, use the subject’s specific tribal affiliation.

Note: All people from Hawai‘i are not Hawaiian. Hawaiian is identified as a race and is counted in the census. Also note: When writing Hawai‘i, use the ‘okina mark between the i’s.

Bottom line: Identifiers in Indigenous communities are specific and it is up to us to uphold these underrepresented narratives.

Hapa: Once considered derogatory, hapa comes from the Hawaiian phrase hapa haole meaning “half white/foreigner.” It now describes anyone whose heritage is white plus another racial or ethnic group, especially Asian and Pacific Islanders. The term is now considered by many to be one of positive self-identification.

Hispanic, Latino/a, Latinx, Latin@, Chicano/a

Federal policy defines Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race. Hispanics/Latinos can be of any race.

While it is common to see Hispanic and Latino used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Hispanic generally refers to people with origins in Spanish-speaking countries. Latino/a generally refers to people with origins in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most Hispanics also identify as Latino/a, and vice versa. Generally, people from Brazil or Haiti do not identify as Hispanic, but may identify as Latino/a.

Latina/Latinas is appropriate for individuals who identify as woman/women.

Chicano/a is a term that refers to Americans of Mexican ancestry.

Chicano/a and Latino/a is more commonly used in academia than by the general public.

Be sure to ask the individual/group how they prefer to be identified. The individual may prefer, for example, a gender-inclusive and neutral term like Latinx or Latin@, or a broader term, like Afro-Latino (the person may identify as both).

Also be aware of gender when using Latino and Chicano in your writing.

While Latinx, Latinidad, and Latin@ are emerging terms that may be favored by younger generations, we don’t recommend their use in most writing for NAU. This is because they are not yet commonly understood by a wide audience. There are exceptions, certainly, and we will monitor and communicate any changes to the style guide.

Race and ethnicity: terms to avoid

Do not use the term “colored person/people. Use a broader term, like “people of color,” which refers to any person who is not white, especially in the US. You may see this referenced as “POC.” This acronym may be used, but only after the phrase it stands for (i.e., people of color) is shared on first use.

In general, no racial or ethnic slur should ever be included in what you write. You may consider an exception if your content is about this slur (as in a research study examining use of the word) or, possibly, if it is essential to your piece and is used in quotes. In this case, ensure that its use is absolutely necessary and that your source has approved the attribution of the slur(s) to them.

This Atlantic article is useful in identifying when it might be permissible to use an ethnic slur in your writing. It’s worth mentioning that the Department of Homeland Security considers the use of ethnic slurs a form of harassment on the basis of race and/or national origin in some circumstances.

Resources and sources:

Students from low-income backgrounds

The students served by NAU include many who come from low-income backgrounds. Many students struggle not only to pay for their college education, but to provide for even basic needs like housing and food. That said, it’s important not to equate being low-income with struggling for basic needs. They are not synonymous.

The ways in which we talk and write about students who are low-income should convey compassion, inclusion, and sensitivity. Writing about poverty and those who do not have the money they need is, of course, a sensitive matter and sometimes a source of shame and stigma for the student.

Participation in programs targeted to students who are low-income or whose parents are low-income (e.g. Pell-eligible or receiving Pell) are common proxies for “low-income.” Proxies are used primarily because measures related to students’ economic well-being are often unobserved in the higher education context, as parental income/wealth is highly confidential.

While these categorizations or proxies can be helpful in demonstrating context, they are only proxies and not equivalent to “low-income.” For example, only US citizens and green card-holders are Pell-eligible, so this would not refer to undocumented students.

There are several terms that are often used in the context of discussing students of low-income background. These include:

Socioeconomic status (SES): Tends to refer to a combination of factors related to a student’s social class. In the context of students, this typically includes family income, parental education (e.g., first-generation status), and parental occupation.

Historically underrepresented groups: Those diverse groups, identities, and communities that historically are underrepresented, underserved, or marginalized at institutions of higher education.

Underserved: Underserved students are defined as those who do not receive equitable resources as other students in the academic pipeline. Typically, these groups of students include low-income, racial/ethnic minorities (“people of color” or “students of color” is the preferred use, not “minorities”), and first-generation students, students with disabilities, among others.

Races and ethnicities that are included: African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander.

“Historically underserved” students are defined as low-income students, those who are first in their families to attend college, and students of color.

“First-generation college student” is used to refer to students who are the first in their family to graduate from college.

Immigrant: Similar to reporting about a person’s race, mentioning that a person is a first-generation immigrant could be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, but the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story. Also, the status of undocumented students should only be discussed if it’s relevant to the story AND the subject agrees to it and understands the danger of potential deportation.

General writing guidelines

When writing about and for students from low-income backgrounds

  • Choose “food security” over “food insecurity” (a deficit-focused approach). A student may be facing food security issues or concerns. “Hunger” is a symptom of very low food security, but “hunger” and “hungry” should be used carefully.
  • Choose “homelessness” over “housing insecurity” (not “housing instability”). Consider that both housing and food security issues fall on a spectrum, with homelessness being the most urgent, acute end of the housing security spectrum.
  • Dealing with a lack of money, food, and/or reliable housing is a source of shame for some, but not all, students. Approach the topic with sensitivity and ask exactly what the student feels comfortable sharing in any content that will be made public, including photographs. Encourage a framework that helps students understand they are not alone. Describe the issue as a national housing and financial aid crisis that pushes many students into these circumstances, rather than a personal problem or one that blames the student.
  • While the term “underserved” is commonly used to mean those who are low-income and historically underrepresented, you may want to consider using the term “under-resourced.” Don’t use “high-need” or “high-need schools.”
  • Be aware of encouraging any perception that students are “working the system” to get free food or other assistance.
  • Don’t use “poor,” “impoverished,” “underprivileged,” or “disadvantaged” to describe students who are low-income.
  • Listen carefully to how a student or another source tells their story and use similar or the same language. Watch for assumptions and biases in your writing about the reasons for their income status, stereotypes, etc.


Age and ageism

Senior citizen has become a catchall term for the country’s older population, but many find it off-putting. Technically, you can refer to someone as a senior citizen if they are 65 or older. Similarly, the elderly can imply feebleness. When referring to members of this group, try to find a label that describes more specifically the population or person you have in mind: people over 65, retirees, octogenarians. More generically, the term older people, although vague, implies nothing negative. Of course, avoid disparaging terms, as well as informal ones, such as old folks, seniors, and golden agers. More importantly, avoid language that stereotypes older people as mental or physically enfeebled. Write about someone’s years of experience, as opposed to years of age.


Dr. Frank Martinez, a senior citizen, continues to maintain a vigorous practice despite his age.

Happy Acres is a residential community for the elderly.

The still-spry aerialist debuted a new act.


Dr. Frank Martinez, now 70 years old, continues to maintain a vigorous practice.

Happy Acres is a residential community for people age 65 and older.

The aerialist, who has 30 years of experience, debuted a new act.

Words and phrases to avoid

  • Of a certain age
  • Elderly (unless subject is at least 80)
  • Over the hill
  • Senior citizen
  • Spry
  • Geriatric


Physical characteristics

When describing someone’s physical appearance, avoid using subjective adjectives, i.e., pretty, heavy, obese, overweight, burly, slender, etc.

Land acknowledgement

The purpose of land acknowledgement statements is to show respect for Indigenous peoples and recognize their enduring relationship to the land. Practicing acknowledgement can raise awareness about histories that are often suppressed or forgotten.

NAU’s land acknowledgement statement was developed and approved by colleagues in the Office of Native American Initiatives.

Northern Arizona University sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, on homelands sacred to Native Americans throughout the region. We honor their past, present, and future generations, who have lived here for millennia and will forever call this place home.

It is an important sign of understanding and respect to use this statement whenever and wherever possible.