Language etiquette in writing

What does etiquette mean?

Etiquette means being polite and minding your manners. It’s about watching what you say and being careful about how you behave. It involves showing respect and being courteous. Etiquette applies to writing and editing too. Minding your Ps and Qs (watching your manners) is essential in all written communication because it makes the content clear and keeps the reader engaged. It will also make sure you remain mindful of your ABCs (all the basics).

Why are good manners important in written communication (the Ps and Qs)?


Language etiquette in writing is about respecting readers. The message conveyed in writing is stronger and reaches a broader audience when careful thought is given to what is written, how it is written and what words are used. Good manners in writing show a regard for the feelings and rights of all readers.


Good manners in writing honour the word but also the world. Words have the power to bring people together or drive people apart. Words can convey incorrect meaning if used incorrectly or inappropriately. Good manners in writing demonstrate good moral conduct.


Strong language etiquette also showcases the integrity of the writer and editor. Careful consideration of words used shows an honesty about reality rather than distorting facts and risking perpetuation of false or outdated ideas.

How do we practice or improve effective language etiquette in writing (the ABCs)?

Education and information

It’s vital to remain informed of changes in language. If ever one is unsure, it’s never a bad idea to ask the source (if possible), find an authority or even to do a Google search. We aren’t all exposed to the same range of experiences and terminology to know what is most appropriate. We must never assume we know the correct referencing of people, places, and experiences that fall outside of our immediate exposure. It is important to be politically correct. Check what you know about referring to people in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability and any term that sets one apart from the other.

Develop sensitivity to discriminatory language

Language must be appropriate and sensitive to the topic at hand. Political correctness in writing ensures readers are not marginalised, excluded or discriminated against. We are accustomed to referencing people against our dominant world view. In Western culture, we still tend to reference terms against male, white, Christian and heterosexual. What this means is that distinctions are made only when the reference is different to one of these (the Black cashier, the female boss, a Muslim neighbour, etc.). Check the relevance of any language that seeks to make such distinctions. If the distinction is not important to the context of what is written, remove it.


Examples that were nipped in the bud of bad-mannered writing

In my work I’ve caught bad language on a number of occasions. A client called me to alert me about her client who was a transvestite. She wasn’t sure how we should refer to them. I suggested she ask the client about their gender identity (binary, non-binary) and preferred pronoun (she, he, they). I made sure to use the correct term ‘transgender woman’. The client was respected and portrayed correctly in the report that had to be drafted subsequently.

I’ve seen incorrect language for disability too. For instance, the use of the term ‘child with intellectual impairment’ is more sensitive than ‘mentally handicapped’ or ‘people with hearing disabilities’ rather than ‘the deaf’. ‘She uses a wheelchair’ is preferred to ‘she is wheelchair bound’.

I also often wonder why people say ‘my gay friend’ but never ‘my straight friend’.

I recently read a book that referred to family members, friends, colleagues, in-laws by name only. At the very end of the book there was a sudden mention of a ‘black boy’. I kept waiting for the relevance of the child’s race but there was none. It jolted me and I was disturbed by it. This was the perfect example of a published novel that was written from, and possibly to, only one world view.


Some say manners cost nothing. I beg to differ. We need intent and a will to be informed if we want our writing and our editing standards to reflect acceptable language etiquette. It’s a small price to pay but a necessary investment for good.

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