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Language That Enslaves Our Thinking

Traveling recently in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, I visited many places that told the story of slavery in the South. From the start, I noticed that presenters used the phrase enslaved people or enslaved person rather than slaves or slave.

The first time I heard enslaved people at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, I asked the guide about her choice of words. She explained that the noun slaves defined people too narrowly. They were much more than slaves. They were people who were enslaved.

Then at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Georgia, this portion of a sign explained that concept.

Words Have Power

In other words, the noun slave limits our thinking. It gives no hint that the enslaved person might have been a mother, daughter, sister, wife, dressmaker, cook, caregiver, gardener, healer, etc., as well as a thinking, feeling human being.

We still have words that define people narrowly. They cause us to focus on a specific, negative condition of a person’s life rather than reflect on the breadth of it.

Do you use any of these nouns in your writing?

Homeless–When used as a noun (the homeless), this word narrows our thinking, like slaves. In contrast, the expression “people experiencing homelessness” (like “people who were enslaved”) allows our thoughts to broaden. It suggests that the individuals are more than their current social condition. They have lived in homes, gone to school, had people who loved them (and love them still), held jobs (and may hold them now), and had full, varied lives. They are not simply the category homeless. 

Addicts–This noun limits our vision and our understanding of people who suffer from addiction. Indeed, addiction takes over people’s lives, but writers should not let the word addict define the individual. More useful expressions are “a person suffering from addiction,” “a person experiencing an alcohol/drug problem,” or “a person with a substance use disorder.” The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (AP) recommends avoiding the words alcoholic, addict, user, abuser, junkie, and drunk because they label the person rather than the disease.

Illegals–This hot-button noun is sometimes used to label people who are in the United States illegally. Like slaves, homeless, and addicts, it limits the readers’ perceptions of a huge range of individuals–in this case, individuals who are in the country illegally for many different reasons. AP recommends:

Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. 

Diabetics, insomniacs, paraplegics–Like the other nouns, these words limit people using one challenging condition that they live with.

These examples are slightly different, but they appear in business writing and communicate narrowly and negatively:

Subordinate–Some people use this noun to name people who report to them. Yet the word suggests “less than.” The adjective subordinate has synonyms such as lesser, minor, inferior, lower, and subservient. Better expressions than subordinate are employee, team member, staff member, staff, and direct report–none of which suggest subservience.

Loser–Like subordinate, loser stresses the “less than” status. Yet people who lose are often highly skilled, trained, and committed–winners by most measures. Better words are runner-up and competitor. 

In your writing, have you recognized limiting words and discovered ways to avoid them? Have you found alternatives that suggest the rich complexity of life rather than constraining our thoughts and ideas? I’d love to hear from you.

But before you fault me for political correctness, please consider the title of this post: “Language That Enslaves Our Thinking.” Let’s not allow our language to restrict our ways of thinking about slavery, homelessness, addiction, immigration, and other challenging subjects. My goal is not to be politically correct. It’s to think and communicate with my eyes fully open.

Thank you to the many people of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia who made my vacation a rich experience!


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Language That Enslaves Our Thinking”

  • Thank you for such a nice post, Lynn! Words are indeed very important and we need to be aware of the way we use them.

  • Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I had to share this link with my friends, too!

  • Camilla, Laura, Chris, and Virginia, thank you all for responding!

    Camilla, I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

    Laura, thanks for sharing the link! I am glad you liked the post.

    Chris, thank you for telling us about People First language. Inspired by your information, I quickly found this site, which has many examples that people can learn from:

    Virginia, I appreciate your excellent example and your helpful anecdote. Thank you for taking the time to comment.


  • I wholeheartedly agree with your premise. I work in a field where “People First” is an important rule. For instance, we encourage people to say that someone has autism, not that he or she is autistic, because they are so much more than their autism. We don’t want to define them so narrowly, not only by their disorder. In using People First language, we not only expand our own definition of the person we are speaking of but also offer that expanded view to our listeners.

  • Thank you! We are becoming more aware of this use of language and its importance. We have changed “special needs children” to “children with special needs.” It’s a subtle change but recognizes the child first. Years ago I used the expression, “slaving over a hot stove.” A friend pointed out the offensive reference to the memory of slavery. I haven’t used it since.

  • This post is going to be useful even if English is not my first language. It’s the idea behind it that matters, it goes beyond language.

    Chris’ comment (“someone has autism, not that he or she is autistic)” made me think about a book by Erich Fromm – To have or to be?.

    The author noted how our language changed over time, as we’ve become more materialist: “to be” has been replaced by “to have”. I don’t know if this applies to English, but it’s quite evident in Latin languages. His examples are: “I have an idea” means “I think”; “I have an ambition” means “I deside” or “I want”. In medical context, he suggests that a patient in the past would have said “I’m upset” instead of “I have a problem”, or “I can’t sleep” instead of “I have imsomnia”. And again “I’m happily married” instead of “I have a happy marriage”.

    He saw this as a negative evolution, an alienation. Honestly in this case I must disagree with this renowned psychoanalyst and agree with Chris and you! Or probably they’re just two totally different things and I’m making too much of nothing.

  • Hi Deborah,

    Thank you for taking the time to share Fromm’s ideas about language. Now I am thinking about the Spanish that I study, for example, “Tengo sueño” (“I have dream”) for “I am sleepy.” Interesting! I haven’t read the link information yet, but I look forward to it.


  • Have we become a people who don’t think or reason and who only believe things on the most basic level? Are we so thin-skinned that we let words that were not intended to offend, to offend (aka trigger) us?

    Just because someone is noted as a subordinate does not in any way define them other than their position, which is one who reports, and takes direction, from another. It does not define them as less capable, less knowledgable, or even of a lower class.

    The same for the slave label – that only defines a characteristic but not the individual. Slavery has been around for thousands of year and didn’t start with the importation of black slaves from Africa – the first slaves in the Colonies were whites from Ireland. Slavery is wrong, that can never be argued, but it is also not something that defines the individual who is a slave – they are still people with families, friends, skills, and all have something to offer.

    Sometimes I believe that rather than using words to communicate, to influence, to entertain, or to educate, we use words to intimidate others. The entire Political Correct movement seems to have become one that strives to intimidate any, and all, who they disagree with. It forces everyone to be careful with their words so as not to offend, even when no offense is intended, simply because those reading or hearing the words are reading individual words and not thoughts, thus taking things out of context.

    Just my $0.01

  • Hi Lionel,

    You are a thoughtful person, and I am going to assume that your intent is not to offend. But intent doesn’t matter if a person is indeed offended by certain language. If someone tells me he does not like being called a “subordinate” (or if I notice that the first definition of the word in my dictionary is “belonging to a lower or inferior class”), I am not going to use the word “subordinate” because of what it communicates or could communicate. I do not choose to offend.

    If people who are descended from slaves tell me that they prefer the term “enslaved people” rather than “slaves” because it describes who they were more accurately, I am going to use the language they prefer. I want to be heard and received, so I will use the language that reaches my audience most effectively. I do not choose to offend.

    You said that political correctness “forces everyone to be careful with their words so as not to offend, even when no offense is intended.” I’m not sure about the forcing part, but I do believe that all of us will be more successful and happier if we are careful with our words.

    If I ran into you while cycling, I wouldn’t have intended to knock you down and hurt you, but I would hurt you nevertheless. If I use language that hurts you, it hurts you whether I intended to hurt you or not. And if I keep using that language, then I DO intend to hurt you–because now I know better.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  • This subject is really interesting, so I’ve got something more to add.

    I once saw a man on TV who happened to be born blind. The presenter introduced him saying he was a “non vedente”, that is translated as “not-seeing person” which is a polite way to say “blind” in Italian. The man replied “just say I’m blind, because that’s the word, don’t sugar it up! You don’t play “not-seeing person buff”, it’s “blindman’s buff”, right?”.

    And he wasn’t say this in a mean or resentful way, he was genuinely smiling and trying to make everyone comfortable. He didn’t want people to be worried about offending him just by saying the word “blind” because that’s just a word and not an insult.

    So my point is that you risk offending someone either way (using the politically correct word or not) because not everyone thinks the same.

  • Interesting, Deborah! I like your thinking, and I believe we can get a lot from your story.

    One point is to ask people, privately or publicly, which language they prefer. Doing it publicly gives the advantage that the audience gets to hear and understand the exchange. If the presenter had introduced the man as blind, the audience might have wondered why he was not using the more delicate expression.

    Also, I think about the fact that the man was born blind–he has always been blind and has–I assume–been hearing that word since childhood. So “not-seeing person” seems silly to him. In the United States, we typically use the expression “visually impaired.” It’s especially apt for people who have difficulty seeing but are not totally blind.

    Both “blind” and “visually impaired” are adjectives (although we can say “the blind,” making it a noun). With either adjective, we can use the word “people,” that is, “people who are blind,” “people who are visually impaired.” With that phrasing, we are still acknowledging their humanity rather than only their condition.

    Thanks for exploring this topic.


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