Election language: Choose accurate words as the ballots are tallied

November 7, 2016 By Brady Jones / @modernangelo Resources

I admit it.

I enjoy politics. A lot.

I like the intrigue, the strategy, the back-and-forth. I enjoy thinking about the history that brought us to these points and looking for ways to make the future better.

But in all of the discussions and coverage this campaign season, I have noticed a few things pertaining to terminology and word choice.

I’m not here to preach about being politically correct. I’m here to preach about being accurate.

So for all my journalism and pundit friends out there, here are a few tips about some of the words and terms likely to come up as the ballots get tallied.

Latino/a or Hispanic?

This is a big one I’ve noticed, and it wasn’t an easy one for a white dude from Nebraska to wrap his head around at first. They are both used as blanket racial descriptions, but you should know, these terms aren’t actually about race or necessarily interchangeable.

Hispanic is a term used to describe people of a Spanish heritage, meaning they speak Spanish and trace their cultural roots back to Spain. So, yes, it could cover many people who came from the many wonderful nations to our south, but would not include people from Brazil, as their language and culture comes from Portugal, not Spain. And the term actually includes people from Spain, too.

Latino/a is probably closer to the term you’re looking for because it deals with geography and covers people who come from the Latin American countries. That means it would include Brazil and not Spain.

The easiest way to remember: hiSPANic – Spain/Spanish; LATINo/a – Latin America.


As in the above entry, terms around the religion of Islam aren’t necessarily interchangeable. Muslim refers to anyone following the religion of Islam, but Arab is an ethnic term. Not all Muslims are Arab, and not all Arabs are Muslim. Islam is a massively diverse religion with followers from cultures and countries all over the world — the largest Muslim population is actually in Indonesia. And in the Middle East, people in Iran are ethnically Persian, not Arab. And there are also Arabs who are Christian. For more on race/ethnicity terminology, check out the Conscious Style Guide.

Uneducated voters?

We’ve heard a lot about the education gap among voters this cycle, and I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear this phrase. Though I doubt it is meant as a derogatory term and often used to describe an important voter statistic, it comes across as though you’re saying an entire group of people is just dumb. And that’s not nice OR accurate. I know many people with high school degrees who are brilliant about things I don’t have the faintest clue about, and I know people with degrees who don’t know what Aleppo is (worth noting the highly educated and respectable New York Times didn’t know what Aleppo was either). Though it might mean using more words, it would be better to describe the education of groups accurately: those with high school degrees, those with college degrees, those with advanced degrees, etc.


The acronyms for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community can get unwieldy. In an effort to be all-inclusive, it can begin to look a bit like alphabet soup. In the end, it’s up to your organization’s style (if you don’t have one, you should decide on one), but the most commonly used and most easily recognized by the general public are LGBT and LGBTQ (‘Q’ = queer).

Be careful with ‘queer,’ though. Even though there has been a movement within the community to “reclaim” it from the dredges of demeaning slurs, there can be a lot of negative stigma and past experiences rooted in the word, and not everyone — myself included — identifies with it. The best advice I can give is to think it through, decide on a style and stick to it.

The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association has a handy stylebook to help guide you with other LGBT questions.


Transgender issues have come to the forefront of national discussion the last couple of years, in part because of North Carolina’s bathroom laws. As the state’s election results will be closely watched, transgender people may be sought for reactions. The best advice I can give is to identify someone however they wish to be identified (and don’t be afraid to ask!). Some people do not identify as male or female, leaving writers in a bit of a pronoun quandary.

Enter the singular “they.”

The singular “they” — to be used for people not identifying with a specific gender, or if you’re unsure of their identity has steadily grown in acceptance. It was even the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year  in 2015. It may make your high school grammar teacher angry, but it’s already how a lot of people talk anyway, so it isn’t likely to confuse your readers/viewers. Again, it’s best to determine your style and stick with it.

Suffragist or Suffragette?

I learned something this election: Suffragist and Suffragette are not the same thing.

Use suffragist when you are talking about people seeking the right to vote in general. Use suffragette if you’re talking about the specific group of women voters in the early 20th century United Kingdom.

My friend and fellow ACES board member Merrill Perlman wrote a great piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about the history of these two words. The history is fascinating, and you should read it while you’re waiting for more poll numbers to come in.

More resources

Language is such an dynamic and powerful thing, and this is just a sampling of some terminology issues you might come across. There are several resources for you to check out if you are looking for more, including The Diversity Style Guide put out by the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, Poynter’s News U webinars, as well as the conversations among ACES’ members that happen on our Facebook page and through our Twitter #ACESchats on respectful languageinclusive language and political editing.

Brady Jones serves as the secretary of the American Copy Editors Society and is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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