Tag Archives: language police

Speech Codes, Microagression and Grant Writing: Words that Shouldn’t (and Should) be Used in Proposals

One of the most unfortunate changes in the academic world since I left the warm bosom of the University of Minnesota in the Great Frozen North over 40 years ago is the rise of so-called “hate speech codes.” These Orwellean codes purport to regulate speech to prevent “hate speech,” as defined by the local campus Thought Police, and thus avoid dreaded microagressions. This is pretty rich for someone who started at the U of M in 1968 during the height of campus free speech demonstrations regarding an essay, the title of which—”The Student as ________“— I can no longer put in print because of changing speech mores.*

George Orwell presaged the decline of real meaning in his 1948 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which is a must read for any grant writer.

In grant writing, there’s a strict, albeit unwritten, speech code that budding grant writers would be wise to learn. Here are some words and concepts to avoid—or use—in grant writing and why:

  • Bureaucracy: The bureaucrats who read typically read and score proposals might be offended if they’re reminded that they actually are bureaucrats and not saintly givers of OPM (other people’s money). Jake likes the word “bureaucrat,” which I find very annoying when I have to edit it out. By the way: don’t use the term “OPM,” either!
  • Victim: Never characterize the recipient of whatever human service you’re writing about as a “victim,” which is now seen as pejorative. For example, a homeless person is “experiencing” homelessness and a drug addled teen is “living with the scourge of addiction.” They are not victims of their situation.
  • Ex-offenders: Never refer to a formerly incarcerated person as an ex-offender. The term now in use is “returning citizen.” To me it sounds like they got back from a cruise, but who am I to blow against the wind?
  • Win: If someone is characterized as “winning,” this implies a loser—and we can’t have losers in grant writing. Like grade school soccer in some precincts, all players are winners and get a trophy (dodge ball is out). You can, however, use the hoary, but acceptable “win-win”, or even better “win-win-win” phraseology to summarize the wonderful world that will exist in the afterglow of project funding and implementation.
  • Guardian: “Guardian” is a legal term and should be avoided. Instead, when writing about at-risk children and youth, it’s best to always refer to “parents/caregivers” rather than just “parents,” since many of them live in the ever popular termed “single-parent household.” Parents/caregivers implies an extended “family constellation” (another great grant phrase that should be used) that is somehow looking after the interests of the young person, even though dad’s disappeared, mom’s incarcerated, but will soon be a returning citizen, and grandma’s “living with a disability.”
  • Disabled, and So On: No one is disabled. Instead, as above, they’re “living with a disability” or even better, “living with a condition of disability”. Why use four words when six will do? They can also be “differently abled.” Similarly, no one is blind, they “live with a visual impairment,” no one is deaf, they “live with a hearing impairment.”
  • Infected: People are not infected with HIV, but are rather “HIV positive,” or in shorthand, “HIV+”. This puts a positive spin on things, don’t you think? Or, I suppose you could try, “person of HIVness.” Phrases like “living on the down low” are acceptable, however. So is MSM (“men who have sex with men.”)
  • Of Color: Shorthand for minority residents is “residents of color.” Obviously, don’t say it the other way around!
  • Ethnic Capitalization: In a laundry list of ethnic groups living in a target area, do this: African American, Hispanic or Latino (Latino generally preferred in CA and the southwest), Asian and white.
  • Partnership/Collaboration: Every project is going to be implemented by a partnership or collaborative, even if it isn’t. Usually it isn’t.
  • She/he: It’s always “she/he” and “her/his,” not the other way around. Draw your own conclusion.
  • LBGTQ: The is for “Q” for “questioning” or “queer,” depending on your point of view, and has recently been added to the catchall, LBGT, for sexual orientation/gender identity. The whole gender identity issue may throw my “she/he” convention into a cocked hat. Maybe, I should start using “she/he/not sure” instead.
  • Poor: No one is never poor; a person or family might “economically disadvantaged” or “low income.” Describing the world in terms of “advantage” and “disadvantage” is a good; contrasting “economically disadvantaged residents” with their “affluent, privileged” neighbors is particularly good.
  • Career Ladder: Any job training or education effort should lead to a “career-ladder job” with “living-wage potential.”

I could go on, as there are lots more examples, but, I of course, have to finish the proposal draft I’m working on. This list may be updated as we think of more examples.


* Camille Paglia and I are the last people alive who remember the real ’60s left, which bears only a passing resemblance to and shared name with the current left:

My essays often address the impasse in contemporary politics between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ a polarity I contend lost its meaning after the Sixties. There should be an examination of the way Sixties innovators were openly hostile to the establishment liberals of the time. In today’s impoverished dialogue, critiques of liberalism are often naively labeled ‘conservative,’ as if twenty-five hundred years of Western intellectual history presented no other alternatives.