Tag Archives: language

Language update for grant writers: the CDC has a new list of seven forbidden words/terms

The Washington Post reports that “CDC gets list of forbidden words” from its political masters. We find it hard to judge how serious the list is, because knowledge of the ban itself is only by way of “an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing”—not exactly an authoritative source for final policy. Still, the article has been making the rounds and the supposedly forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”* As grant writers, we’re always sensitive to the vagaries of evolving language and ideas, as you can see from our 2014 post “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.”

(EDIT: It appears that “After firestorm, CDC director says terms like ‘science-based’ are not banned.” Alternately, it’s also possible that the word ban was being discussed, but the reaction to the leak caused the CDC to can it.)

While most PC language emerges from the political left, this CDC directive comes from the Trump administration. There’s a bit of humor in this, as right-wing commentators often cite the PC “language police,” raising the dire specter of Orwell’s 1984 and his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It seems the wingtip is now on the other political foot.

Still, the CDC banned words are standard proposalese that we frequently use in CDC, HRSA, and many other proposals. Some combination of these words are also found in virtually every RFP. “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) is so ubiquitous as to be cliché, even though RFPs rarely define what is supposed to constitute a given EBP. I find this true: “When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.” People who understand EBPs just cite the evidence and let the evidence speak for itself; people who don’t use the term EBPs as a conceptual fix-all.

Despite the putative ban, grant writers should continue to use these buzzwords, because proposal reviewers—both federal program officers and peer reviewers—expect to read them. Reading them is a good substitute for thinking about what they mean. In addition, there’s often a disconnect between the political appointees (e.g., Deputy Under Assistant Secretary for Obscure Grant Programs), who nominally run federal agencies, and the career civil servants or lifers who actually operate the agencies. Lifers often refer to the political appointees as “the summer help,” since they come and go with new administrations—or more frequently. Peer reviewers are practitioners, who are likely to be PC in the extreme and unlikely to attend to most administration instructions. As grant writers, our audience is composed of reviewers, not the summer help, so that’s who we’ll continue to write to.

For those of us of a certain age, it’s also ironic that the CDC picked seven words to ban, instead of six or eight, given comedian George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”


* Mother Jones has a parody of this kerfuffle with seven replacements for the banned words: vulnerable=snowflake, entitlement=welfare, diversity=anti-white, transgender=deviant, fetus=unborn child, evidence-based=elitist, and science-based=atheist.

Acceptable Grant Proposal Language Evolves: No More Living on the Down Low

In today’s world of hyper micro-aggression Thought Police on social media and college campuses,* grant writers must be constantly vigilant regarding “acceptable” grant proposal language while simultaneously being culturally sensitive. We’ve written about the challenge of balancing the two in “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.” We recently encountered a challenge along those lines in the form of client pushback to a phrase we’ve used for years when writing HIV/AIDs proposals targeting African Americans: “Living on the down low.”

“Living on the down low” is shorthand for the fairly common practice of some men (and it’s particularly common among African American) to sometimes have unacknowledged (and usually unprotected) sex with other men. This class of high-risk persons are commonly referred to as “MSMs” (men who have sex with other men) in the grant writing trade, but they don’t consider themselves bisexual. Leaving aside the closeted aspect of this behavior, it can help explain why the CDC reports that “African Americans are the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV in the United States.” The New York Times published the seminal (pun intended) story on this phenomenon way back in 2003.

For years, we’ve been including sentences like this in most HIV/AIDS proposals: “The target population is African American men living on the down low.” We recently wrote a HRSA HIV/AIDS proposal that offered variations on “living on the down low” in the first draft. But our client considered that phrase pejorative. Internally, we were surprised, but we rewrote the second draft with alternative, convoluted language to describe the same behavior. We’re just ghost writers after all and never have a dog in proposal language fights.

We don’t know when “living on the down low” became anathema to our contact person in this agency, but we won’t use it in their proposals anymore. There are other formerly used terms have a similar history. For example, “Afro-American” and “black” were popular usages until the Reverend Jesse Jackson led a 1988 news conference of 75 “black” (black was used in the media) organizations, stating that their preferred usage was now African American and certainly not “Negro,” which had last seen favor in the Johnson administration. Consequently, we’ve predominantly used the term “African American” since going into business in 1993, unless our client tells us they prefer “black.” We’re always careful to capitalize Black when we do use it, to keep language hawks at bay. Some clients serve African or Caribbean immigrants, however, and dislike the term “African American” because they see it as inaccurate. There is no single right answer for everyone.

“People of color” is another currently fashionable usage and handy catch-all. Be careful, however. ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach recently fell afoul when she inexplicably tossed out the phrase “colored people” on live TV, presumably having meant to say “people of color.” This led to a rather wonderful essay by African American and decidedly non-PC Columbia University linguist John McWorter, in which he asked: “Is ‘colored people’ a slur?”

In grant writing it’s important not to offend clients and grant reviewers. But it’s even more important to find pathways through the language and identity minefields to write in clear, easy to understand, language that succinctly tells the story.


* See, though, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s essay “The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. This essay explains why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health,” which takes on related issues.

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.