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How We Talk About...People

Languages change over time. New terms develop. Otherwise, we might still be yelling about the expergefactor that woke us up early this morning. Some terms (rightfully) go away. Perhaps the terms we are talking about today will be replaced by others down the line. In the meantime, that shouldn’t stop us from reflecting on the language we use and how it impacts our communities - especially if we are in the role of doing mission-driven work intended to drive equity.

Talking About People and Substance Use Disorders

Addiction has often been characterized as a moral issue: think about terms like drug habit or the connotations of a dirty drug test. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, at the National Institutes for Health explores these topics in their paper, Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction.

Historically, the way substance use disorders have been talked about and the ways policies have been constructed in the United States have also been highly charged with racial double standards, such as, for example, distinctions between crack and cocaine. We are finally at the start of a reckoning of an exceedingly slow change from the "War on Drugs" to the treatment of addiction as a medical and public health issue.

Some key takeaways from the NIDA paper:

  • Avoid stigmatizing language and don’t use blaming language like addict or substance abuser

  • Use person-first language (unless people have other preferences) such as a person with a substance use disorder

  • Be accurate - recognize the science and that substance use disorders are chronic but treatable medical conditions, not personal failings

Talking About People and Incarceration

The Marshall Project, which reports on criminal justice issues, released their most recent version of News Inside, a print publication disseminated to prisons across the country, titled Broken Language. In it, they talk about their new style guide as well as the survey of 200 people who are incarcerated that helped direct the results.

They discuss their move to person-first language (for example, a person who is incarcerated versus inmate). Of course, no group of people is a monolith, and, even as their survey indicates, there are different words that people identify with best, but the key here is having these conversations at all and talking to people about how they want to be talked about.

As in the work above around substance use, The Marshall Project also stresses the importance of accuracy, noting that systems have long been imprecise in how people who are incarcerated are written about. Interestingly, they choose not to use the fairly common term in the re-entry field, returning citizen, in their reporting, citing its lack of clarity and potential confusion with issues around immigration. As a journalistic organization, being precise is key.


The language we use evolves. And the way sectors choose to talk about people, especially people who have been often most harmed by systemic oppression, can often say more about the speaker or sector than the people referenced.

At the Clear Language Lab, we frequently contribute to projects whose audience often includes people with mental health or substance use issues. We've talked to many about how the language that gets used in these everyday mediums makes them feel in our last blog and the dehumanization that can happen. And as the examples above show, the status quo language has not been always accurate or precise either. And if the way we talk about these issues can potentially influence policy and action, all the better.

When we know better, we do better. Let’s do better.

Interested exploring these themes further? Join us for an upcoming event at Clear Language Lab.


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