A happy compromise between people-first and plain language

Applying people-first standards with plain language in mind
Mar 7, 2023

It’s not impossible to use people-first and plain language at the same time. And before you ask, they’re not contradictory, either.

It’s fairly simple. Identify someone as a person first, and then put the descriptor you need to mention afterward.

During her presentation at the 2022 Federal Plain Language Summit, Donna Ledbetter, a technical writer and editor with the National Institute of Corrections of the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that plain language and people-first language are “not opposing concepts, but rather, it’s a union; a partnership.”

Plain language requires us to omit needless words. If you need four words to describe a person, that’s OK. People-first language is still plain when the words are all necessary and people know what they mean.

What is people-first language?

People-first language is about word choice and being thoughtful about how you choose to describe someone.

“We want to think about the person before we think about the other defining characteristics of that person,” Ledbetter said.

Here are some examples of people-first language from the CDC.
Instead of: Use:
Inmate, offender, convict Justice-involved individual, person in custody, person in prison, person who was formerly incarcerated
The disabled People with disabilities
Mentally ill People with a mental illness
The homeless People experiencing homelessness
Drug user, addict Person with a substance use disorder
Diabetic Person with diabetes
Poor people People with lower incomes

Why should I use people-first language?

People-first language is a way to show in your communication that you are respectful of the people who are directly affected by your words.


  • acknowledges people’s ability to change, 
  • helps the community recognize them as human beings, and 
  • also affects the way children see their parents — and themselves.

Ledbetter points out that the shift in language at the National Institute of Corrections was “many years in the making.” After much discussion and considering all the factors, they decided that the effects words can have on people — especially in the justice system, where words can imply that people are “bad” or “evil” — were too great to ignore.

“Any small thing that we can do to turn the needle to help people have a better life, to help children to have better futures, we thought it was important enough to do,” Ledbetter said. “So, we did.”

OK, I’m in. How do I do it?

“Be the change you want to see,” Ledbetter said.

7 concrete actions you can take:

  1. Make it part of the agency’s culture by ensuring everyone in the organization is responsible for incorporating people-first language, whether it’s in the name of a program or a technical document that’s hundreds of pages.
  2. Make it part of your style guide.
  3. Write it into contracts to require any vendors and contractors to follow the plain language, people-first style.
  4. If a document does not use people-first language, send it back to the writer and ask them to edit it to comply with the style guide.
  5. Hold informal trainings such as brown bag lunches, one-on-one conversations, and phone calls.
  6. Hold formal trainings during your agency’s monthly staff meetings or annual training.
  7. Model the language in your own writing and speaking.

What if I get pushback?

Ledbetter said she knew it was going to be a cultural shift, especially for people who have been using the old words for decades. Some people still continue to use the old language, she said.

If co-workers in your agency push back and continue to use the old language, let them. Focus on modeling the behavior and language you want others to adopt.