Business Writing

Choose Your Words Carefully

There are many words in English. Some of them formal, some informal. Some polite, some impolite. Some old-fashioned, some current. Each time you write you will be facing decisions about which words to use.

In this tip I want to highlight a major consideration when we think about word choice in business writing. This one isn’t about readability.


Discrimination is a major issue in the business world. We need to avoid words that discriminate against sex, race, nationality, disability, sexual orientation and age. The challenge is that many of the words we use are so ingrained in our culture that we don’t think twice about using them. And when we do, we don’t mean any harm. But it is important to think about this issue and choose our words carefully.

  • Use gender-neutral words. Instead of chairman, use chair or chairperson. Instead of policeman write police officer. Instead of air hostess, try cabin crew. Bar staff instead of barman…
  • Watch out for your use of pronouns. Avoid the use of masculine pronouns to refer to both sexes. Use plural pronouns instead (purists may say that this is a little clumsy, but I consider discrimination is a bigger issue than slightly clumsy grammar). Or you can use he/she, she or he, he or she, s/he. You’ll find plenty of debate of the singular use of they and very little agreement. That said, it is widely accepted in business writing.
  • Some professional roles have been traditionally filled by men (e.g. engineers, doctors, barristers). Take extra care with your pronouns when you are referring to these and avoid the automatic use of he or him.
  • There are words in English which suggest male dominance. Think about man-made, or the use of the generic term man to refer to the human race. Try manufactured or humanity instead.
  • When it comes to disabilities, many words that were previously accepted are now regarded as inappropriate. Words that spring to mind include handicapped and retarded.
  • The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has published an excellent paper, ‘Guidelines for Discussing People with Disabilities in Quality of Life Grant Applications’. In this paper the foundation suggest putting the person first, not their disability. For example, the child with a physical disability rather than the physically disabled child.