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Language choices

Active vs. passive voice

Use active voice, not passive voice, whenever possible. Active voice makes it immediately clear who or what is performing an action.

  • Example:

    The mayor recommends that city residents take shelter before the winter storm.

Passive voice describes a sentence that doesn’t state who or what is responsible for an action, or puts the “do-er” later in the sentence than the thing being done.

  • Examples:

    It is recommended that city residents take shelter before the winter storm.

    A recommendation was made by the mayor to take shelter before the winter storm.

While readers usually prefer active voice, there are situations where passive voice is useful. This includes times when the acting person or thing is actually unknown, or when you want to draw attention to the object being acted upon.

  • Example:

    The motorcycles were stolen late last night.

NOT: Someone stole the motorcycles late last night.

Figurative language

Avoid using figurative language. It often doesn’t say what you mean. Figures of speech can also make your content more difficult to understand. People who don’t speak English fluently may not understand idioms, and they can make translation more difficult.


  • Drive out (unless you’re talking about cattle, use “get rid of”)

  • Going forward (unless you’re giving directions)

  • In order to (extra words that usually mean the same thing as “to”)

  • One-stop shop (we’re the government, not a big box store.)

Inclusive language

The City of Philadelphia works to use language that is inclusive, accessible, and welcoming.

We have provided principles, resources, and specific suggestions for writing about diverse groups of people, but this page is not exhaustive.

Key principles

  • Do your research. Actively seek out resources to inform your writing. Give preference to resources created by the people and communities you’re writing about.

  • Use self-identification. Refer to people and communities using the terms they identify with. If you aren’t sure, just ask.

  • Use people-first language. Everyone is a person, first and foremost. People-first language uses identities and traits as adjectives, not nouns. For example, “woman with multiple sclerosis.”

General resources


Avoid referring to someone’s age, unless it’s relevant to what you’re writing about (for example, when referring to benefits that are available to people of certain ages).


Only refer to a person’s disability when necessary. Make sure the terms you use are accurate and specific. When in doubt about how to discuss disability, reach out to someone from the community you’re writing about.

When writing about those with disabilities, we usually use people-first language.

  • Example: Children with cerebral palsy have benefited from the program.

We also make sure that any disability is correctly identified.

  • Example: The program serves over 3,000 individuals who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    NOT: The program serves over 3,000 bipolar people.

There are often exceptions to the people-first approach. For example, many people with impaired vision or people with hearing impairment prefer disability-first language.

Hearing and vision — exceptions to “people-first” language

Use the “deaf” to describe people with acute hearing loss. Use “partially deaf” or “hard of hearing” for people with moderate hearing loss.

Use “blind” to describe someone without vision. A person with some vision can be “legally blind” or have “low vision.”

For more information, refer to the Disability Language Style Guide or the Diversity Style Guide.

Gender and sexuality

Use gender-neutral language whenever possible.

  • When referring to a hypothetical person, use the singular “they.” Do not use “he or she.”

  • Use “spouse” instead of “husband/wife.” Use “parent” instead of “mother/father.”

  • Use neutral titles whenever possible. For example, use chairperson, firefighter, or police officer.

LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer)

Refer to the LGBTQ community using a single acronym.

Use the following as adjectives, but never as nouns:

  • bisexual
  • gay
  • lesbian
  • transgender
  • trans
  • LGBT

When applicable, you can use “they” as a singular non-gendered pronoun.

For more information, contact the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. You can also refer to the NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists Stylebook or the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

Mental illness

You can use “mental illness” as a general term, but do not refer to an individual as “mentally ill.” Use person-first language and, when possible, specific conditions.

  • Example: The Center was created to assist people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and severe depression.

Race, ethnicity, and religion

We follow the AP Stylebook’s guidelines on race. Capitalize Black when using the term in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense. Capitalize Indigenous when referring to an area’s original inhabitants.

Avoid using words, images, or situations that reinforce racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes (even stereotypes that may appear to be positive). Avoid the term “non-white,” or other terms that treat whiteness as a default.

When referring to a person’s race or ethnicity, use adjectives, not nouns (for example, “a Hispanic person,” not “a Hispanic”).

Don’t use the term “minority” on its own. Be specific. For example, write “racial minority” or “linguistic minority.”

For more guidance on race, ethnicity, and religion, see the following resources:

Plain language

Don’t use formal or long words when easy or short ones will do.

  • Examples:

    Write “about” instead of “approximately”

    Write “use” instead of “utilize” is a good resource and offers tips for making sure your writing is clear to all audiences.

We lose our readers’ trust when we use government buzzwords and jargon. Often, these words are too general and vague. They can lead to misinterpretation or empty, meaningless text. We can do without the following words:

  • Agenda (unless you’re talking about a meeting)

  • Combating (use “working against” or “fighting”)

  • Commit/pledge (we need to be more specific — we’re either doing something or we’re not)

  • Countering

  • Deploy (unless you’re talking about the military or software)

  • Dialogue (we speak with people)

  • Disincentivize (and incentivize)

  • Empower

  • Foster (unless it’s children)

  • Illegals/illegal aliens (use “undocumented immigrants”)

  • Impact (as a verb)

  • Initiate (use “start” or “begin”)

  • Land (as a verb, unless you’re talking about aircraft)

  • Leverage (unless you use it in the financial sense)

  • Overarching

  • Robust

  • Streamline

  • Strengthening (unless you’re referring to bridges or other structures)

  • Tackling (unless you’re referring to football or another contact sport)

  • Thought leader (instead, refer to a person’s accomplishments)

  • Touchpoint (instead, mention specific system components)

  • User testing (unless you’re actually testing the users — otherwise, use “usability testing”)

  • Utilize

Redundant phrases

Find alternatives to common redundant phrases below:

Redundant Revised
for the purpose of to
for the reason that because
future plans plans
in excess of more than
in order to to
reason why why
root cause cause
widely diverse diverse
advance planning planning
assembled together assembled
background experience experience
completely eliminate eliminate
component part component
cooperate together cooperate
end result result
final end end