Too PC or not too PC, that is the question?

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screamIt's increasingly easy to cause offence in these sensitive days, but if you bend over backwards to be PC it can result in totally unreadable documents. Giulia De Cesare gives some advice on how to get the balance right.

Imagine this: you're in a hurry to get a document out and you quickly check that the grammar and punctuation are correct, the content is just what the reader wanted and in logical order, and you've used the right template.

So you print it and post it, or hit 'send'- and get an angry reply or no reply at all. Your cherished customer took offence at something in the document. Not only was all your effort wasted, but you now have to undo the damage to a good relationship.

Photo of Giulia De Cesare"Most people think that having to be 'politically correct' is just a frustrating joke."

Most people think that having to be 'politically correct' is just a frustrating joke. The press frequently makes fun of po-faced pronouncements about avoiding expressions like 'the man in the street' or having to call your cat your 'companion animal' instead of your pet. A quick internet search finds lots of anti-PC websites claiming that it's almost the end of the world as we know it.

This isn't the place for such a debate. Businesses just need to avoid offending customers and staff. So let's look at ways to do that while also writing readable documents.

Make it clear and inoffensive

'He/she' or, even worse,'s/he' is distracting to a lot of readers, as is alternating 'his' and 'her' throughout a document. Rewording clunky sentences can sidestep the whole issue.

Here are some examples:

Dubious original Better alternatives
The help desk will be manned between the hours of 09.00 and 17.00 daily. The help desk will be staffed between the hours of 09.00 and 17.00 daily.
The help desk will be open between the hours of 09.00 and 17.00 daily.
Help desk support will be available between the hours of 09.00 and 17.00 daily.
Each staff member should complete his/her expenses by the end of the month. All staff members should complete their expenses by the end of the month. (using the plural)
You should complete your expenses by the end of the month. (using the second person singular) All expenses should be completed by the end of the month. (using the passive)
The end of the month is the deadline for everyone’s expenses. (changing the order)
Avoid the gender trap

You can't avoid male bias by just substituting 'person' for 'man' wherever you hear it. The story that feminists lobbied to have a large British city renamed 'Personchester' is entirely apocryphal.

Sensible alternatives depend on the context. Here are some possibilities:

Fireman Fire fighter
Policeman Police officer
Postman Post carrier
Middleman Intermediary
Grandfather clause Exclusion clause
And that classic: manhole Access hole

Respect religions

Referring to peoples' names can be daunting. Most of you would know to avoid 'Christian name' and 'surname' but what do you use instead? 'First name' and 'last name' worked for a while but there are some cultures that put these in a different order.

"You can't avoid male bias by just substituting 'person' for 'man'. The story that feminists lobbied to have a large British city renamed 'Personchester' is entirely apocryphal. Sensible alternatives depend on the context."

Safest is to use 'family name' and 'given name'. On a similar note, it's best to avoid BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) in dates. Instead, use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era).

Put people first

The accepted usage for people with disabilities is to emphasise that they are people first, thus 'people with disabilities' rather than 'disabled people'. Basically, the rule is that the condition should not define the person, so someone 'has diabetes' rather than 'is a diabetic'.

How to get it right

You need to help your staff avoid writing things that are offensive, while still getting things done in a reasonable time. One way to achieve this is to think carefully about the things that you have to put into writing often and create a shortlist of suggested wordings for staff to refer to. Such a list shouldn't be more than a page long or it will be impractical. Staff should know that you expect them to use it.

Ask people to contribute, including the sorts of things they would find offensive. They will see the point, and have some ownership of the whole idea rather than thinking it is just another way for management to make their jobs harder.

The important thing to ask them is to consider their reader. This is vital in business writing, but it can get lost in the rush to send something out to a deadline. You're lucky if writing gets spell-checked.

But anyone who stops to think about their reader would have avoided a mistake we recently heard about. A document describing something as a 'legal minefield' was sent to a client in a war zone...

Giulia De Cesare is senior trainer at professional authoring and training company, Plain Words. Or email

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