RESOURCE REVIEW: “A Progressive’s Style Guide” Helps Unlock Power of Language to Shape and Change the World

A Progressive Style Guide

I am a nonprofit copy writer. I believe that words can move people to act, and inspire people to change the world for the better.

So when I heard about “A Progressive’s Style Guide” (pdf),  I both flinched, and lurched to download it. It’s no secret that I lean left in my politics, but I know that the Nonprofit Marketing Guide is a resource for causes all across the political spectrum.

Could I write about this guide here? Would some groups be offended by the guide just from the title? Maybe.

But the power of language is fascinating to me, and I dove in.

Reading the guide brought me back to days writing for human rights groups. I learned not to use certain phrases like “hold their feet to the fire” and “dead on arrival,” and to use the word “survivor” instead of “victim.” I bristle at rhetoric that taps violent imagery such as “killer idea” and “take your best shot.”

But I still have a lot to learn.

So, this Guide drew me in and I found myself learning A LOT. I think it’s worth a download. I printed a copy to hang by my desk. There’s a ton of research here — over 266 endnotes cite references for terms and ideas mentioned in the guide. There’s a list of additional resources such as the BuzzFeed Style Guide and UNESCO Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language.

You might disagree with some on the classifications. You might have more to add. Download the free guide for yourself, and share your experience in the Comments section so that others can learn and understand your point of view.

Here are the issue areas covered in the Guide, and a small sample of the terms used and avoided/questioned by activists in that issue area:

disability wheelchair quoteAGE
Used: adolescent, older person, people over…
Avoided: childish, middle-aged, the elderly

DISABILITY
Used: deaf, on the autism spectrum, person with…
Avoided: deaf ears, suffering from…, victim of

ECONOMY
Used: low-income, persons experiencing homelessness
Avoided: disadvantaged, the needy, less fortunate

ENVIRONMENT/SCIENCE
Used: climate change, global warming
Avoided: climate refugee, green

FOOD
Used: food insecurity, hunger, starvation
Avoided: famine, food stamps, the hungry

GENDER/SEX
Used: sex worker, trans woman and trans man
Avoided: bathroom bill, he-she, prostitute

GEOPOLITICS
Used: Palestinians, global south
Avoided: third world, war on terror

HEALTH
Used: people living with AIDS
Avoided: AIDS victim

HOUSING/SPACE
Used: slum, workforce housing
Avoided: bum, gentrification

IMMIGRATION/REFUGEES
Used: asylum seeker, refugee
Avoided: illegal alien, legal resident

INDIGENEITY/ANCESTRY
Used: First Peoples, Native Americans
Avoided: Negro, part-Indian

POLICE/INCARCERATION
Used: incarcerated person, prisoner, returning citizen
Avoided: correctional institution, ex-offender

RACE/ETHNICITY
Used: black, racial minority, oppression
Avoided: Caucasian, diverse, minority

SEXUAL AND DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Used: alleged victim, consent, rape culture
Avoided: accuser, child porn

In addition to these word/phrase lists, the Guide contains writing guidelines and specific recommendations for each issue area. Check it out for yourself here: A Progressive’s Style Guide (pdf).


Got something to say about the Guide? Leave a comment.



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Author: Kerri Karvetski, Online Campaigns and Social Media Adviser

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