Language That Is Person-First

By Neuroskeptic | January 31, 2013 8:37 pm

An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by Roger Collier highlights the problem of Person-first language: Laudable cause, horrible prose

Person-first language (or language that is person-first, as it prefers to be known) is the nice idea that rather than calling someone, say, “blind”, we should call them “a person who is blind”, so as to remind everyone that they’re not defined by their blindness but are a person first… clever, eh?

No. For one thing, it’s just bad English. As Collier puts it: “There’s a reason Ernest Hemingway didn’t call his novel The Person Who Was Male and Advanced in Years and the Sea.

He goes on to quote linguist Helena Halmari who highlights a number of problems with the approach:

In English, emphasis naturally occurs at the end of sentences… so by pushing mention of a disability or disease deeper into a sentence, adherents to person-first language may actually be adding stress to those words. “What you have at the end of a sentence is the new information that gets the most attention,” says Halmari.

Worse yet…

Tucking the disability behind the noun may contribute to stigma rather than reduce it. After all, most adjectives with positive connotations precede nouns. We do not typically say a “person who is beautiful,” for instance, or a “person who is intelligent.” Sticking a word in the shadow of a noun can create the impression that there is something inherently wrong with it – that it should be hidden.

As a ‘person with mental illness’, I entirely agree. I am a man, a neuroscientist, a blogger; I’m not ashamed of those things, so I don’t feel the need to erect linguistic fences between them and my person. I am also a psychiatric patient, a depressive, mentally ill; I’m not ashamed of that, either, and I resent the implication – however well-intentioned – that I should.

To me that’s the really troubling part of this: the should aspect. The only reason you should not call someone something, is because they ask you not to.

Person-first advocates claim to be speaking on behalf of the ‘group’ who are harmed and offended by the current use of language – but who gave them that right? They don’t speak for me, or anyone but themselves. I don’t see ‘the mentally ill’ as a group at all, but even if it is one, they’re certainly not our  elected representatives.

So non-person-first language doesn’t offend me. In fact, I’m more worried by the idea that people will assume that, because I’m mentally ill, I want them to use person-first language. Now that’s offensive.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: controversiology, mental health, woo, you


No brain. No gain.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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