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
  • Rose L.

    What about language like “blind person” or “schizophrenic person”? It's not “person first” but it's also not as dehumanizing as “schizophrenics.” (IMHO)

  • Beth

    Why worry about either? The disability community isn't monolithic on the point. True, those for person-first language don't speak for you. Nor do you speak for them.

    Are you really suggesting one should only refrain from, say, racial slurs is if the target requests it? Or, if that's too far, disability-related ones: retard, cripple, spaz, midget, invalid. I'm not saying any of these is the same as person-first language, but these conclusions follow from your words. Did you really mean the only reason is the target's request? And who gave anyone the right to deem any term a slur that oughtn't be used? Living languages change and not all the changes are going to be to your liking or mine.

    I normally use person-first language for a descriptor I'd plainly link with “have” and generally prefer it over hyphenating. I have multiple disabilities. I find “multiply-disabled” awkward. My cognitive problems weren't termed as disabilities for a while. I couldn't be cognitively-problemed, so I think in terms of cognitive disabilities, not cognitively-disabled. (This is also more specific: I have more than one cognitive disability.) My particular condition cannot be adjectived, so I cannot be it; I can only have or be a person with it. This means my condition has more stigma than it would otherwise? Is person-first language really just bad English?

  • DS

    Bigger is better. Faster is better. First is better. Why do some folks assume such things? That's what I don't get.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Beth: Slurs are a different matter; they're inherently insulting words and have no neutral or technical usage. We can fairly presume that no-one wants to be called a 'spaz' because that's the whole point of the word – if it weren't offensive it wouldn't be used.

    But PFL is about changing the usage of perfectly neutral terms, which only some people (a minority in my experience) have a problem with.

    If someone wants me to use PFL about them, I will. I can only speak for myself. But I don't like the idea that someone is speaking for me in advocating PFL (and implicitly they are, because if you try to change the way English works, you are changing it for everyone).

    Of course if there's no alternative (if no adjective exists, as you say) then we default to PFL and that's fine, but we have perfectly good words for some things, and there's nothing wrong with using them.

  • Jayarava

    With respect, and also speaking as a someone who suffers from depression and has been hospitalised, I disagree. Labels like “mentally ill” are unhelpful on the whole. What does it even mean?

    The trouble is the labels are not accurate; and even where they are reasonably well understood by professionals they are generally misunderstood.

    The Old Man and the Sea analogy is a false one. People are routinely discriminated against on the basis of age.

    If you wish to define yourself in terms like “depressive” then you are welcome to. Personally I find it depressing. I also suffer from depression – repeatedly and frequently, all my life.

    Labels have different emotional baggage and trying to argue that being labelled “a man” is on the same level as “mentally ill” is again a false analogy.

    On the other hand I agree that there is a coercive element to politically correct speech that is unpleasant. It would be nice if people did not pigeon hole us on the basis of labels; did not discriminate on the basis of the pigeon holing – but they do; they really do.

    I see the issue not in terms of erecting linguistic fences, but in tearing them down. I'm not a label.

    And yes I believe I have been harmed by labels, and by concretised views based on my worse periods; and I am offended by being labelled.

  • Black book doc

    Mental illness stigmatization and racism are very bad for the purity of English for sure!

    For myself, having little time to spare for vanity in writing – and even less hope to write in correct English, try as I might- I really resent having to write persons with Asperger's syndrome instead of autistics.

    Still, I do my best for the reasons Jayarava wrote about.

    NB: When I want to refer to those who have pride like petrossa, I prefer to use aspies or aspergirls because those terms have been coined by persons with Asperger's syndrome themselves.

    PS neuroskeptic: depression sufferers are probably the least discriminate about persons with a chronic mental illness in Western societies and you should thank Bad Pharma marketing for it, in my opinion.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Jayarava: Not wanting to use labels at all is a seperate issue.

    I can respect that – if you don't think 'mental illness' is a useful term, then that's an interesting point to debate; I disagree, but it's an issue.

    However I just don't see any use in using the same labels, and just changing their position in a sentence.

    I don't think it will affect stigma. People just fundamentally don't pay attention to the grammar of sentences. “Schizophrenic” and “Person with schizophrenia” – once people get familiar with them, they're mentally the same to them. You can't de-stigmatize the word by making it an adjective as opposed to a noun.

  • Black book doc

    Schizophrenic means different to many persons when “person with schizophrenia” leave less space to “otherizing”- one can even hope that only the smallest minority will consider “person with schizophrenia” an oxymoron.

    That article is part of a serie of three and you can read in :

    ///Is a disability something one should be ashamed of? Does it make you less human?
    “A disability is a natural part of the human experience.” Unfortunately, says Snow, society just can’t seem to see past the disability to the person.
    “People with disabilities, in general, are deeply marginalized,” she says. “They are not part of the social mainstream.”
    Snow believes person-first language can help move attitudes about disability in a new direction, and has dedicated a portion of her website to the topic( She first became aware of the insensitive labels often attached to individuals with disabilities 25 years ago, after her son was born prematurely and soon after diagnosed with cerebral palsy.///

    In the part you posted about, you can find:
    ///Say as much as possible in as few words as possible.///

    For having recently being listening with the utmost attention to an articulate and very bright PhD candidate in finance defending his thesis to the utmost satisfation of the academics involved in the procedure, I am a living testimony that fewer words means letting the laypeople down in their understanding-which is of course OK for the above circomstances when the laypeople are just there for the champagne afterward-so to speak.

    In other circonstances it can be dangerous to give the laypeople too few words- as a bright literary mind with a much better English than I, commented to a a previous post of yours.

  • TheCellularScale

    I don't think the order of the 'person' in a sentence matters, but I do think 'person' should be there somewhere.
    It is dehumanizing and objectifying to call a black person 'a black' or a blonde woman 'a blonde'. It's saying they are that thing, not they have that characteristic. It doesn't alter the neutrality of the word or sound awkward.
    btw. In this case 'the old man' is fine, but just 'the old' wouldn't be.

  • DS

    Is it dehumanizing to call me a scientist? Should I be called a person who is a scientist or a scientist person?

    • Charlemagne

      A scientist, and a person of science are two different entities. A scientist has a degree and maybe a job in the field whereas one might say “the President is a person of science”, i.e. he believes in applying science to problems.

  • Judith

    Yonks ago, in the days of newsgroups, a friend of mine started It was a wonderful source of support and information in an age when such sharing with total strangers was totally new. The group was small and intimate, and for many of the posters it was their only support system.

    And then people started to differ on whether they were 'tourettic', 'tourettes' or 'people with tourettes syndrome'. Bad blood developed between some of the main personalities, things started getting personal and soon the group withered away.

    Interesting that the dispute is still alive and kicking 15 years later.

  • Neuroskeptic

    “Person” may be the most dehumanizing word there is. The essence of our humanity is individuality. We're different: we can adopt and inhabit identities.

    A tree is just a tree. A snake is just a snake. But I'm not merely a person – I'm me.

  • TheCellularScale

    DS, that is a good point, and I think people could take this too far. But basically I think a 'scientist' means a 'person who does science' while 'a blonde' could refer to things other than people, a dog, for example. I don't put TONS of importance on this, and am not particularly offended if someone doesn't use this type of language, but I generally try to use it when I write and speak.

    Neuroskeptic: “'person' may be the most dehumanizing word there is”

    I think that's a bit of a stretch. Though I can maybe see your point, the more adjectives strung after a 'person', the more individuality is conveyed.

  • Jon Brock

    I find Jim Sinclair's argument against person-first language to be extremely compelling, at least in relation to autism:

    “If other people have trouble remembering that autism doesn’t make me any less a person, then that’s their problem, not mine. Let them find a way to remind themselves that I’m a person, without trying to define an essential feature of my personhood as something bad. I am autistic because I accept and value myself the way I am.”

  • Black Book doc


    Thanks for the link to a post which starts with:

    ///I am not a “person with autism.” I am an autistic person. Why does this distinction matter to me?///

  • Beth

    Neuroskeptic wrote:
    “Slurs are a different matter; they're inherently insulting words and have no neutral or technical usage. […]

    But PFL is about changing the usage of perfectly neutral terms, which only some people (a minority in my experience) have a problem with.”

    Not long ago, “retarded” was a clinical term. Presumably it was once considered neutral. Surely at one time, only a minority had a problem with this purely clinical term. Now it's a slur.
    For a very similar change to person-first language, compare “colored people” and “people of color”.
    I have every reason to believe this is how language works. There will be changes and these changes face resistance. Sometimes changes stick, sometimes not. That's part of how language works.

  • Russell Hartstein funpawcare

    I disagree, a sentient being is not an inanimate thing, (snake) an it but a who and has been proven time and time again that they are individuals as much as you and I are. Read any article that Marc Beckoff writes but your statement reeks of human exceptionalism. Russell Hartstein

  • Neuroskeptic

    Beth: While those terms have certainly changed in usage, I'm not sure that was down to any kind of deliberate campaign to make them unacceptable.

    Rather it was that nasty people just started using them as slurs.

    But even assuming that we could make certain terms unacceptable, what have we gained? “Retarded” is now a slur, that's just one more slur to add to the list of unpleasant terms. The current neutral terms will become slurs in the next 10 years (already 'special' is increasingly used to mean 'stupid' in the UK).

    And “people of color” vs “colored people”, again, how is that change a good thing?

    The words are constantly changing – and that's out of our control – but that doesn't make attitudes change.

  • Charlemagne

    The phrase usage is also rooted in culture. “Person of color” is a VERY politically correct phrase which attempts to include several races and groups with darker skin who have traditionally been the brunt of racism. On the other hand, “an autistic person” chances are, is attempting to explain the condition in an understanding way. Culture, including a dominant religion, is a powerful element in any language



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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