person-first language


Person-first language (PFL) prescribes the use of phrases like "a person with alcoholism" in preference to "an alcoholic" or "an alcoholic person". The idea is that separating the person from the affliction linguistically should accomplish the same in the minds of the speakers and listeners. Contrast with identity-first language (IFL), "an alcoholic person".

Wikipedia lists a variety of recommendations from a variety of groups in favor of person-first language, and a few in opposition (notably, the National Federation of the Blind, the deaf community, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network). It is short on experimental results, though.


Fernandes2009 reports on a study of 214 academically gifted Brazilian Portuguese-speaking high school students. The students were split into two groups and given a survey to determine attitudes towards people with epilepsy. Students asked about "a person with epilepsy" showed a lower degree of perceived stigma than those asked about "an epileptic".

Noble2016 attempted to replicate Fernandes2009 with speakers of English in the UK. The study found no statistically significant differences in attitudes between the groups.

Collier2012 reports little difference between PFL and IFL:

St. Louis’ introduction to person-first language made him wonder if it actually had an effect on opinions about words used to label people with various conditions, including speech, language and hearing disorders (J Fluency Discord 1999;24:1–24). He found that the person-first version of a label was regarded as “significantly more positive” in only 2% of comparisons. “For example,” wrote St. Louis, “with the exception of widely known terms that have stigmatized individuals (e.g., ‘Moron’), terms identifying serious mental illness (‘psychosis’) or dreaded diseases (‘leprosy’), person-first nomenclature made little difference in minimizing negative reactions.”

Dietrich2001 found no significant difference between 544 college students' perceptions of a "stutterer" or "noun + who stutters".

Botha2021 suggests that the mental separation of autism from the person (the goal of PFL) may contribute to the incidence of "altruistic filicide", in which parents kill their children to, for example, 'free' them from autism (in 54% of studied cases deemed 'altruistic', the children killed were autistic).



Botha2021 rejects the use of the term "person with autism", because "a not insubstantial body of literature is showing that this is both least preferred and most offensive, and there are more preferred, and less offensive alternatives available."

Collier2012 reports:

In general, parents of children with autism appear to prefer person-first language. Some even suggest that saying “autistic child” is not much better than referring to someone with cancer as a “cancerous person.” Many adults with autism, however, believe that autism is central to their identity and prefer to use terms such as “autistic person.”


Noble2017 reports on a survey of 638 people with epilepsy and 333 "significant others" (mostly parents) that 86.7% and 93.4%, respectively, favored PFL.

Uneven usage

Gernsbacher2017 indicates that "person-first language is used more frequently to refer to children with disabilities than to refer to children without disabilities; person-first language is more frequently used to refer to children with disabilities than adults with disabilities; and person-first language is most frequently used to refer to children with the most stigmatized disabilities. Therefore, the use of person-first language in scholarly writing may actually accentuate stigma rather than attenuate it."

Crocker2019 reports that though pervasive in academia, person-first language is uncommon in practice.


Titchkosky2001 (which is primarily about a Canadian government document, In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues) generally rejects PFL as portraying the disabled as a shapeless mass of 'people', no different from anyone else, except in the variety of their disabilities. In other words, it in fact fails to put the person first.

Hoffman2020 gives some statistics from a survey of college students, whether they know what PFL is, whether they think it is important, etc. The article makes gestures toward maybe there will be other ways that are better in the future and we should refer to people as they prefer, and Hoffman et al. acknowledged (and did not refute) claims that disabled persons tend to prefer IFL, but the overall tone is clearly in favor of PFL as the One True Way.

Flink2021 makes a few unfounded statements about the effect of PFL, and concludes that even if disabled people prefer to use IFL, we should use PFL, since it's already the standard.


[Botha2021] Botha, Monique, Hanlon, Jacqueline & Williams, Gemma Louise (2021). Does Language Matter? Identity-First Versus Person-First Language Use in Autism Research: A Response to Vivanti, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, link. doi.

[Collier2012] Collier, Roger (2012). Person-First Language: Noble Intent but to What Effect?, CMAJ, 184(18), 1977-1978. link. doi.

[Crocker2019] Crocker, Amy F & Smith, Susan N (2019). Person-First Language: Are We Practicing What We Preach?, Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare, 12, 125-129. link. doi.

[Dietrich2001] Dietrich, Susan, Jensen, Kimberley H & Williams, Dale E (2001). Effects of the Label “Stutterer” on Student Perceptions, Journal of Fluency Disorders, 26(1), 55-66. link. doi.

[Fernandes2009] Fernandes, Paula T., Barros, Nelson F. De & Li, Li M. (2009). Stop Saying Epileptic, Epilepsia, 50(5), 1280-1283. link. doi.

[Flink2021] Flink, Patrick (2021). Person-First & Identity-First Language: Supporting Students with Disabilities on Campus, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 45(2), 79-85. link. doi.

[Gernsbacher2017] Gernsbacher, Morton Ann (2017). Editorial Perspective: The Use of Person-First Language in Scholarly Writing May Accentuate Stigma, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 58(7), 859-861. link. doi.

[Hoffman2020] Hoffman, Holly, Hengesbach, Marie & Trotter, Shana (2020). Perspectives on Person-First Language: A Focus on College Students, Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 33(1), 39-48. link.

[Noble2016] Noble, Adam J. & Marson, Anthony G. (2016). Should We Stop Saying “Epileptic”? A Comparison of the Effect of the Terms “Epileptic” and “Person with Epilepsy”, Epilepsy & Behavior, 59, 21-27. link. doi.

[Noble2017] Noble, Adam J., Robinson, Abbey, Snape, Darlene & Marson, Anthony G. (2017). ‘Epileptic’, ‘Epileptic Person’ or ‘Person with Epilepsy’? Bringing Quantitative and Qualitative Evidence on the Views of UK Patients and Carers to the Terminology Debate, Epilepsy & Behavior, 67, 20-27. link. doi.

[Titchkosky2001] Titchkosky, Tanya (2001). Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name?“People-First” Language in Canadian Society*, Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie, 38(2), 125-140. link. doi.