Chapter Twelve – Language Use

Oral versus Written Language

Group meeting on some comfortable bean bags


When we use the word “language,” we are referring to the words you choose to use in your speech—so by definition, our focus is on spoken language. Spoken language has always existed prior to written language. Wrench, McCroskey, and Richmond suggested that if you think about the human history of language as a twelve-inch ruler, written language or recorded language has only existed for the “last quarter of an inch”[1]. Furthermore, of the more than six thousand languages that are spoken around the world today, only a minority of them actually use a written alphabet[2]. To help us understand the importance of language, we will first look at the basic functions of language and then delve into the differences between oral and written language.

Basic Functions of Language

Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought. As mentioned above, there are over six thousand language schemes currently in use around the world. The language spoken by the greatest number of people on the planet is Mandarin; other widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Arabic[3]. Language is ultimately important because it is the primary means through which humans have the ability to communicate and interact with one another. Some linguists go so far as to suggest that the acquisition of language skills is the primary advancement that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to flourish and succeed over other hominid species[4].

In today’s world, effective use of language helps us in our interpersonal relationships at home and at work. Using language effectively also will improve your ability to be an effective public speaker. Because language is an important aspect of public speaking that many students don’t spend enough time developing, we encourage you to take advantage of this chapter.

One of the first components necessary for understanding language is to understand how we assign meaning to words. Words consist of sounds (oral) and shapes (written) that have agreed-upon meanings based in concepts, ideas, and memories. When we write the word “blue,” we may be referring to a portion of the visual spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nanometers. You could also say that the color in question is an equal mixture of both red and green light. While both of these are technically correct ways to interpret the word “blue,” we’re pretty sure that neither of these definitions is how you thought about the word. When hearing the word “blue,” you may have thought of your favorite color, the color of the sky on a spring day, or the color of a really ugly car you saw in the parking lot. When people think about language, there are two different types of meanings that people must be aware of: denotative and connotative.

Denotative Meaning

The denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions. The definitions provided above for the word “blue” are examples of definitions that might be found in a dictionary. The first dictionary was written by Robert Cawdry in 1604 and was called Table Alphabeticall. This dictionary of the English language consisted of three thousand commonly spoken English words. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 200,000 words[6].


Connotative Meaning

 The connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word. In addition to the examples above, the word “blue” can evoke many other ideas:

  • State of depression (feeling blue)
  • Indication of winning (a blue ribbon)
  • Side during the Civil War (blues vs. grays)
  • Sudden event (out of the blue)

We also associate the color blue with the sky and the ocean. Maybe your school’s colors or those of your archrival include blue. There are also various forms of blue: aquamarine, baby blue, navy blue, royal blue, and so on.

Some miscommunication can occur over denotative meanings of words. For example, a flyer for a tennis center open house expressed the goal of introducing children to the game of tennis. At the bottom of the flyer, people were encouraged to bring their own racquets if they had them but that “a limited number of racquets will be available.” It turned out that the denotative meaning of the final phrase was interpreted in multiple ways: some parents attending the event perceived it to mean that loaner racquets would be available for use during the open house event, but the people running the open house intended it to mean that parents could purchase racquets onsite. The confusion over denotative meaning probably hurt the tennis center, as some parents left the event feeling they had been misled by the flyer.

Although denotatively based misunderstanding such as this one do happen, the majority of communication problems involving language occur because of differing connotative meanings. You may be trying to persuade your audience to support public funding for a new professional football stadium in your city, but if mentioning the team’s or owner’s name creates negative connotations in the minds of audience members, you will not be very persuasive. The potential for misunderstanding based in connotative meaning is an additional reason why audience analysis, discussed earlier in this book, is critically important. By conducting effective audience analysis, you can know in advance how your audience might respond to the connotations of the words and ideas you present. Connotative meanings can not only differ between individuals interacting at the same time but also differ greatly across time periods and cultures. Ultimately, speakers should attempt to have a working knowledge of how their audiences could potentially interpret words and ideas to minimize the chance of miscommunication.


Twelve Ways Oral and Written Language Differ

A second important aspect to understand about language is that oral language (used in public speaking) and written language (used for texts) does not function the same way. Try a brief experiment. Take a textbook, maybe even this one, and read it out loud. When the text is read aloud, does it sound conversational? Probably not. Public speaking, on the other hand, should sound like a conversation. McCroskey, Wrench, and Richmond highlighted the following twelve differences that exist between oral and written language:

  1. Oral language has a smaller variety of words.
  2. Oral language has words with fewer syllables.
  3. Oral language has shorter sentences.
  4. Oral language has more self-reference words (Imemine).
  5. Oral language has fewer quantifying terms or precise numerical words.
  6. Oral language has more pseudo-quantifying terms (manyfewsome).
  7. Oral language has more extreme and superlative words (nonealleveryalwaysnever).
  8. Oral language has more qualifying statements (clauses beginning with unless and except).
  9. Oral language has more repetition of words and syllables.
  10. Oral language uses more contractions.
  11. Oral language has more interjections (“Wow!,” “Really?,” “No!,” “You’re kidding!”).
  12. Oral language has more colloquial and nonstandard words (McCroskey, et al., 2003).

These differences exist primarily because people listen to and read information differently. First, when you read information, if you don’t grasp content the first time, you have the ability to reread a section. When we are listening to information, we do not have the ability to “rewind” life and relisten to the information. Second, when you read information, if you do not understand a concept, you can look up the concept in a dictionary or online and gain the knowledge easily. However, we do not always have the ability to walk around with the Internet and look up concepts we don’t understand. Therefore, oral communication should be simple enough to be easily understood in the moment by a specific audience, without additional study or information.


Using Language Effectively

A man yelling into a megaphone


When considering how to use language effectively in your speech, consider the degree to which the language is appropriate, vivid, inclusive, and familiar. The next sections define each of these aspects of language and discuss why each is important in public speaking.

Use Appropriate Language

As with anything in life, there are positive and negative ways of using language. One of the first concepts a speaker needs to think about when looking at language use is appropriateness. By appropriate, we mean whether the language is suitable or fitting for ourselves, as the speaker; our audience; the speaking context; and the speech itself.

Appropriate for the Speaker

One of the first questions to ask yourself is whether the language you plan on using in a speech fits with your own speaking pattern. Not all language choices are appropriate for all speakers. The language you select should be suitable for you, not someone else. If you’re a first-year college student, there’s no need to force yourself to sound like an astrophysicist even if you are giving a speech on new planets. One of the biggest mistakes novice speakers make is thinking that they have to use million-dollar words because it makes them sound smarter. Actually, million-dollar words don’t tend to function well in oral communication to begin with, so using them will probably make you uncomfortable as a speaker. Also, it may be difficult for you or the audience to understand the nuances of meaning when you use such words, so using them can increase the risk of denotative or connotative misunderstandings.


Appropriate for the Audience

The second aspect of appropriateness asks whether the language you are choosing is appropriate for your specific audience. Let’s say that you’re an engineering student. If you’re giving a presentation in an engineering class, you can use language that other engineering students will know. On the other hand, if you use that engineering vocabulary in a public speaking class, many audience members will not understand you. As another example, if you are speaking about the Great Depression to an audience of young adults, you can’t assume they will know the meaning of terms like “New Deal” and “WPA,” which would be familiar to an audience of senior citizens. In other chapters of this book, we have explained the importance of audience analysis; once again, audience analysis is a key factor in choosing the language to use in a speech.


Appropriate for the Context

The next question about appropriateness is whether the language you will use is suitable or fitting for the context itself. The language you may employ if you’re addressing a student assembly in a high school auditorium will differ from the language you would use at a business meeting in a hotel ballroom. If you’re giving a speech at an outdoor rally, you cannot use the same language you would use in a classroom. Recall that the speaking context includes the occasion, the time of day, the mood of the audience, and other factors in addition to the physical location. Take the entire speaking context into consideration when you make the language choices for your speech.


Appropriate for the Topic

The fourth and final question about the appropriateness of language involves whether the language is appropriate for your specific topic. If you are speaking about the early years of The Walt Disney Company, would you want to refer to Walt Disney as a “thaumaturgic” individual (i.e., one who works wonders or miracles)? While the word “thaumaturgic” may be accurate, is it the most appropriate for the topic at hand? As another example, if your speech topic is the dual residence model of string theory, it makes sense to expect that you will use more sophisticated language than if your topic was a basic introduction to the physics of, say, sound or light waves.



Use Vivid Language

After appropriateness, the second main guideline for using language is to use vivid language. Vivid language helps your listeners create strong, distinct, clear, and memorable mental images. Good vivid language usage helps an audience member truly understand and imagine what a speaker is saying. Two common ways to make your speaking more vivid are through the use of imagery and rhythm.


Imagery is the use of language to represent objects, actions, or ideas. The goal of imagery is to help an audience member create a mental picture of what a speaker is saying. A speaker who uses imagery successfully will tap into one or more of the audience’s five basic senses (hearing, taste, touch, smell, and sight). Three common tools of imagery are concreteness, simile, and metaphor.


We have previously discussed the importance of concrete language.  When we use language that is concrete, we attempt to help our audiences see specific realities or actual instances instead of abstract theories and ideas. The goal of concreteness is to help you, as a speaker, show your audience something instead of just telling them. Imagine you’ve decided to give a speech on the importance of freedom. You could easily stand up and talk about the philosophical work of Rudolf Steiner, who divided the ideas of freedom into freedom of thought and freedom of action. If you’re like us, even reading that sentence can make you want to go to sleep. Instead of defining what those terms mean and discussing the philosophical merits of Steiner, you could use real examples where people’s freedom to think or freedom to behave has been stifled. For example, you could talk about how Afghani women under Taliban rule have been denied access to education, and how those seeking education have risked public flogging and even execution[7]. You could further illustrate how Afghani women under the Taliban are forced to adhere to rigid interpretations of Islamic law that functionally limit their behavior. As illustrations of the two freedoms discussed by Steiner, these examples make things more concrete for audience members and thus easier to remember. Ultimately, the goal of concreteness is to show an audience something instead of talking about it abstractly.



Another form of imagery is simile. As you likely learned in English courses, a simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Both aspects being compared within a simile are able to remain separate within the comparison. The following are some examples:

  • The thunderous applause was like a party among the gods.
  • After the revelation, she was as angry as a raccoon caught in a cage.
  • Love is like a battlefield.

When we look at these two examples, you’ll see that two words have been italicized: “like” and “as.” All similes contain either “like” or “as” within the comparison. Speakers use similes to help an audience understand a specific characteristic being described within the speech. In the first example, we are connecting the type of applause being heard to something supernatural, so we can imagine that the applause was huge and enormous. Now think how you would envision the event if the simile likened the applause to a mime convention—your mental picture changes dramatically, doesn’t it?

To effectively use similes within your speech, first look for instances where you may already be finding yourself using the words “like” or “as”—for example, “his breath smelled like a fishing boat on a hot summer day.” Second, when you find situations where you are comparing two things using “like” or “as,” examine what it is that you are actually comparing. For example, maybe you’re comparing someone’s breath to the odor of a fishing vessel. Lastly, once you see what two ideas you are comparing, check the mental picture for yourself. Are you getting the kind of mental image you desire? Is the image too strong? Is the image too weak? You can always alter the image to make it stronger or weaker depending on what your aim is.



The other commonly used form of imagery is the metaphor, or a figure of speech where a term or phrase is applied to something in a nonliteral way to suggest a resemblance. In the case of a metaphor, one of the comparison items is said to be the other (even though this is realistically not possible).

Metaphors are comparisons made by speaking of one thing in terms of another. Similes are similar to metaphors in how they function; however, similes make comparisons by using the word “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors do not. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Love is a battlefield.
  • Upon hearing the charges, the accused clammed up and refused to speak without a lawyer.
  • Every year a new crop of activists are born.

In these examples, the comparison word has been italicized. Let’s think through each of these examples. In the first one, the comparison is the same as one of our simile examples except that the word “like” is omitted—instead of being like a battlefield, the metaphor states that love is a battlefield, and it is understood that the speaker does not mean the comparison literally. In the second example, the accused “clams up,” which means that the accused refused to talk in the same way a clam’s shell is closed. In the third example, we refer to activists as “crops” that arise anew with each growing season, and we use “born” figuratively to indicate that they come into being—even though it is understood that they are not newborn infants at the time when they become activists.

To use a metaphor effectively, first determine what you are trying to describe. For example, maybe you are talking about a college catalog that offers a wide variety of courses. Second, identify what it is that you want to say about the object you are trying to describe. Depending on whether you want your audience to think of the catalog as good or bad, you’ll use different words to describe it. Lastly, identify the other object you want to compare the first one to, which should mirror the intentions in the second step. Let’s look at two possible metaphors:

  1. Students groped their way through the maze of courses in the catalog.
  2. Students feasted on the abundance of courses in the catalog.

While both of these examples evoke comparisons with the course catalog, the first example is clearly more negative and the second is more positive.

One mistake people often make in using metaphors is to make two incompatible comparisons in the same sentence or line of thought. Here is an example:

  • “That’s awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on.”[9]

This is known as a mixed metaphor, and it often has an incongruous or even hilarious effect. Unless you are aiming to entertain your audience with fractured use of language, be careful to avoid mixed metaphors.


The power of a metaphor is in its ability to create an image that is linked to emotion in the mind of the audience.

For example, it is one thing to talk about racial injustice, it is quite another for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to note that people have been “…battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” Throughout his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Reverend Dr. King uses the metaphor of the checking account to make his point.

He notes that the crowd has come to the March on Washington to “cash a check” and claims that America has “defaulted on this promissory note” by giving “the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back “insufficient funds.” By using checking and bank account terms that most people are familiar with, the Reverend Dr. King is able to more clearly communicate what he believes has occurred. In addition, the use of this metaphor acts as a sort of “shortcut.” He gets his point across very quickly by comparing the problems of civil rights to the problems of a checking account.

In the same speech the Reverend Dr. King also makes use of similes, which also compare two things but do so using “like” or “as.” In discussing his goals for the Civil Rights movement in his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Reverend Dr. exclaims: “No, no we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Similes also help make your message clearer by using ideas that are more concrete for your audience. For example, to give the audience an idea of what a winter day looked like you could note that the “snow looked as solid as pearls.” To communicate sweltering heat, you could say that “the tar on the road looked like satin.” A simile most of us are familiar with is the notion of the United States being “like a melting pot” with regard to its diversity. We also often note that a friend or colleague that stays out of conflicts between friends is “like Switzerland.” In each of these instances, similes have been used to more clearly and vividly communicate a message.


Our second guideline for effective language in a speech is to use rhythm. When most people think of rhythm, they immediately think about music. What they may not realize is that language is inherently musical; at least it can be. Rhythm refers to the patterned, recurring variance of elements of sound or speech. Whether someone is striking a drum with a stick or standing in front of a group speaking, rhythm is an important aspect of human communication. Think about your favorite public speaker. If you analyze their speaking pattern, you’ll notice that there is a certain cadence to the speech. While much of this cadence is a result of the nonverbal components of speaking, some of the cadence comes from the language that is chosen as well. Let’s examine types of rhythmic language: parallelism, antithesis, repetition, alliteration, and assonance.


When listing items in a sequence, audiences will respond more strongly when those ideas are presented in a grammatically parallel fashion, which is referred to as parallelism. For example, look at the following two examples and determine which one sounds better to you:

  1. “Give me liberty or I’d rather die.”
  2. “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Technically, you’re saying the same thing in both, but the second one has better rhythm, and this rhythm comes from the parallel construction of “give me.” The lack of parallelism in the first example makes the sentence sound disjointed and ineffective.


Antithesis allows you to use contrasting statements in order to make a rhetorical point. Perhaps the most famous example of antithesis comes from the Inaugural Address of President John F. Kennedy when he stated, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In Reverend Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” speech he notes, “I challenge them to put hope in their brains and not dope in their veins.” In each of these cases, the speakers have juxtaposed two competing ideas in one statement to make an argument in order to draw the listener’s attention.

You’re easy on the eyes — hard on the heart. – Terri Clark


Parallel Structure and Language

Antithesis is often worded using parallel structure or language. Parallel structure is the balance of two or more similar phrases or clauses, and parallel wording is the balance of two or more similar words. The Reverend Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech exemplifies both strategies in action. Indeed, the section where he repeats “I Have a Dream” over and over again is an example of the use of both parallel structure and language. The use of parallel structure and language helps your audience remember without beating them over the head with repetition. If worded and delivered carefully, you can communicate a main point over and over again, as did the Reverend Dr. King, and it doesn’t seem as though you are simply repeating the same phrase over and over. You are often doing just that, of course, but because you are careful with your wording (it should be powerful and creative, not pedantic) and your delivery (the correct use of pause, volumes, and other elements of delivery), the audience often perceives the repetition as dramatic and memorable. The use of parallel language and structure can also help you when you are speaking persuasively. Through the use of these strategies, you can create a speech that takes your audience through a series of ideas or arguments that seem to “naturally” build to your conclusion.


As we mentioned earlier in this chapter, one of the major differences between oral and written language is the use of repetition. Because speeches are communicated orally, audience members need to hear the core of the message repeated consistently. Repetition as a linguistic device is designed to help audiences become familiar with a short piece of the speech as they hear it over and over again. By repeating a phrase during a speech, you create a specific rhythm. Probably the most famous and memorable use of repetition within a speech is Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of “I have a dream” in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In that speech, Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the phrase “I have a dream” eight times to great effect. If worded and delivered carefully, you can communicate a main point over and over again, as did the Reverend Dr. King, and it doesn’t seem as though you are simply repeating the same phrase over and over. Because you are careful with your wording (it should be powerful and creative, not pedantic) and your delivery (the correct use of pause, volumes, and other elements of delivery), the audience often perceives the repetition as dramatic and memorable.



Another type of rhythmic language is alliteration or repeating two or more words in a series that begin with the same consonant. In the Harry Potter novel series, the author uses alliteration to name the four wizards who founded Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. There are two basic types of alliteration: immediate juxtaposition and nonimmediate juxtaposition. Immediate juxtaposition occurs when the consonants clearly follow one after the other—as we see in the Harry Potter example. Nonimmediate juxtaposition occurs when the consonants are repeated in nonadjacent words (e.g., “It is the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late”)[11]. Sometimes you can actually use examples of both immediate and nonimmediate juxtaposition within a single speech. The following example is from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention: “Somewhere at this very moment, a child is being born in America. Let it be our cause to give that child a happy home, a healthy family, and a hopeful future”[7].



Assonance is similar to alliteration, but instead of relying on consonants, assonance gets its rhythm from repeating the same vowel sounds with different consonants in the stressed syllables. The phrase “how now brown cow,” which elocution students traditionally used to learn to pronounce rounded vowel sounds, is an example of assonance. While rhymes like “free as a breeze,” “mad as a hatter,” and “no pain, no gain” are examples of assonance, speakers should be wary of relying on assonance because when it is overused it can quickly turn into bad poetry.



Personalized Language

We’re all very busy people. Perhaps you’ve got work, studying, classes, a job, and extracurricular activities to juggle. Because we are all so busy, one problem that speakers often face is trying to get their audience interested in their topic or motivated to care about their argument. A way to help solve this problem is through the use of language that personalizes your topic. Rather than saying, “One might argue” say “You might argue.” Rather than saying “This could impact the country in ways we have not yet imagined,” say “This could impact your life in ways that you have not imagined.” By using language that directly connects your topic or argument to the audience you better your chances of getting your audience to listen and to be persuaded that your subject matter is serious and important to them. Using words like “us,” “you,” and “we” can be a subtle means of getting your audience to pay attention to your speech. Most people are most interested in things that they believe impact their lives directly—make those connections clear for your audience by using personal language.

Use Inclusive Language

Language can either inspire your listeners or turn them off very quickly. One of the fastest ways to alienate an audience is through the use of non-inclusive language. Inclusive language that avoids placing any one group of people above or below other groups while speaking. Let’s look at some common problem areas related to language about gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.


Gender-Specific Language

The first common form of non-inclusive language is language that privileges one of the sexes over the other. There are three common problem areas that speakers run into while speaking: using “he” as generic, using “man” to mean all humans, and gender typing jobs.

Generic “He”

The generic “he” happens when a speaker labels all people within a group as “he” when in reality there is a mixed sex group involved. Consider the statement, “Every morning when an officer of the law puts on his badge, he risks his life to serve and protect his fellow citizens.” In this case, we have a police officer that is labeled as male four different times in one sentence. Obviously, all police officers risk their lives when they put on their badges. A better way to word the sentence would be, “Every morning when officers of the law put on their badges, they risk their lives to serve and protect their fellow citizens.” Notice that in the better sentence, we made the subject plural (“officers”) and used neutral pronouns (“they” and “their”) to avoid the generic “he.”


Use of “Man”

Traditionally, speakers of English have used terms like “man,” “mankind,” and (in casual contexts) “guys” when referring to all genders. In the second half of the twentieth century, as society became more aware of gender bias in language, organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English developed guidelines for nonsexist language (National Council of Teachers of English, 2002). For example, instead of using the word “man,” you could refer to the “human race.” Instead of saying, “hey, guys,” you could say, “OK, everyone.” By using gender-fair language you will be able to convey your meaning just as well, and you won’t risk alienating a portion of your audience.


Gender-Typed Jobs

The last common area where speakers get into trouble with gender and language has to do with job titles. It is not unusual for people to assume, for example, that doctors are male and nurses are female. As a result, they may say “she is a woman doctor” or “he is a male nurse” when mentioning someone’s occupation, perhaps not realizing that the statements “she is a doctor” and “he is a nurse” already inform the listener as to the sex of the person holding that job. Speakers sometimes also use a gender-specific pronoun to refer to an occupation that has both males and females. Table 12.1 Gender Type Jobs lists some common gender-specific jobs titles along with more inclusive versions of those job titles.

Table 12.1 Gender Type Jobs

Exclusive Language Inclusive Language
Policeman Police officer
Businessman Businessperson
Fireman Firefighter
Stewardess Flight attendant
Waiters Wait staff / servers
Mailman Letter carrier / postal worker
Barmaid Bartender


Ethnic Identity

Another type of inclusive language relates to the categories used to highlight an individual’s ethnic identity. Ethnic identity refers to a group an individual identifies with based on a common culture. For example, within the United States we have numerous ethnic groups, including Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Cuban Americans, and Mexican Americans. As with the earlier example of “male nurse,” avoid statements such as “The committee is made up of four women and a Vietnamese man.” Instead, say, “The committee is made up of four women and a man” or, if race and ethnicity are central to the discussion, “The committee is made up of three European American women, an Israeli American woman, a Brazilian American woman, and a Vietnamese American man.” In recent years, there has been a trend toward steering inclusive language away from broad terms like “Asians” and “Hispanics” because these terms are not considered precise labels for the groups they actually represent. If you want to be safe, the best thing you can do is ask a couple of people who belong to an ethnic group how they prefer to label themselves.


Sexual Orientation

Another area that can cause some problems is referred to as heterosexism. Heterosexism occurs when a speaker presumes that everyone in an audience is heterosexual or that cross-sex relationships are the only norm. For example, a speaker might begin a speech by saying, “I am going to talk about the legal obligations you will have with your future husband or wife.” While this speech starts with the notion that everyone plans on getting married, which isn’t the case, it also assumes that everyone will label their significant others as either “husbands” or “wives.” Although some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gender non-conforming communities will use these terms, others prefer for more gender-neutral terms like “spouse” and “partner.” Notice also that we are not using terms such as ‘homosexual’ to refer to multiple distinct sexual orientations, and we are not using outdated terms, such as ‘transexual,’ which are generally no longer accepted terms for gender non-conforming individuals.”



The last category of exclusive versus inclusive language that causes problems for some speakers relates to individuals with physical or mental disabilities. While not always possible in advance of an unknown audience, it’s best to ask a person what terms work for them, based on their lived experiences and identity (Ladau, 2021). Additionally, you may have been taught not to use the word “disabled” and taught to use “person-first” language, in which you identify the person before their disability (i.e., person with autism, person with cerebral palsy). Historically, some disabled individuals and disability service providers pushed person-first language so that others would not solely focus on the disability itself. That is not necessarily wrong, but language evolves over time and the disabled community has started a shift towards “identify-first” language (i.e., disabled, deaf, autistic). This identify-first language places prominence on the disability and is a point of pride (Forber-Pratt, 2019).

Table 12.2 Inclusive Language for Disabilities, provides some other examples of exclusive versus inclusive language.

Table 12.2 Inclusive Language for Disabilities

Exclusive Language Inclusive Language

Person-First Language / Identity-First Language

Handicapped People People with disabilities / Disabled people
Insane Person Person with a psychiatric disability (or label the psychiatric diagnosis, e.g., “person with schizophrenia”)
Person in a wheelchair Person who uses a wheelchair / Wheelchair user
Crippled Person with a physical disability / Disabled person
Special needs program Accessible program
Mentally retarded


Person with an intellectual disability / Intellectually disabled person


Use Familiar Language

The last category related to using language appropriately simply asks you to use language that is familiar both to yourself and to your audience. If you are not comfortable with the language you are using, then you are going to be more nervous speaking, which will definitely have an impact on how your audience receives your speech. You may have a hard time speaking genuinely and sincerely if you use unfamiliar language, and this can impair your credibility. Furthermore, you want to make sure that the language you are using is familiar to your audience. If your audience cannot understand what you are saying, you will not have an effective speech.


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  2. Lewis, M. P. (2009). Ethnologue (16th ed.). Retrieved from
  3. Lewis, 2009
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  6. Oxford University Press. (2011). How many words are there in the English language? Retrieved from
  7. Clinton, W. J. (2005). My life. New York, NY: Vintage Books, p. 421.
  8. Iacopino, V., & Rasekh, Z. (1998). The Taliban’s war on women: A health and human rights crisis in Afghanistan. Boston, MA: Physicians for Human Rights.
  9. National Council of Teachers of English (2002). Guidelines for gender-fair use of language. Retrieved from
  10. Nordquist, R. (2009). Mixed metaphor. Retrieved from at
  11. Obama, B. (2008, January 20). The great need of the hour. Remarks delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta. Retrieved from
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