Banned Words that Every Freelance Journalist Must Now Know

Banned Words in Journalism

In February of 2013, the Associated Press circulated a memo clarifying its position on the terminology journalists should use when referring to married same-sex couples. This decision came several months after the AP amended its AP Stylebook to discourage using the word "homophobia." Together, these rulings effectively banned certain words from the AP lexicon.

In November of 2012, the AP changed several stylistic syntaxes to its Stylebook, including eliminating the word "homophobia" as a term for anti-gay sentiment. "Homophobia," the AP ruled, should not be used in political and social contexts as the word and suffix "phobia" refer to a psychiatric illness, specifically, an irrational and uncontrollable fear.

AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn said the Associated Press decided to be more "precise and accurate and neutral" (source: For similar reasons, the AP also now discourages using the word "Islamophobia," which is defined as having bias against, malice towards, or aberrant fear of Muslims.

Instead of "homophobia," AP Stylebook editors encourage using the word "anti-gay." For example, a writer might refer to "anti-gay sentiment" or "anti-gay policies." A journalist can also use "LGBT rights opponents" in acceptable variations when referring to individuals.

The new terminology contains subtle differences from the old. As Minthorn suggested, the word "anti-gay" is more precise because it doesn't suggest a psychiatric disorder. It may also be more neutral since it implies opposition to social and political policies without judging the cause of such opposition.

Finally, banning the word "homophobia" forces journalists to be more specific. Does the homophobe in question simply oppose certain LGBT policies? Does he refuse to associate with homosexual individuals? Or does he perhaps commit acts of violence against members of the LGBT community?

Some journalists argue that banning "homophobia" has disadvantages. writer Nathaniel Frank (who is also writing a book called The Anti-Gay Mind) contended that the concept of homophobia is rooted in scientific researchit demonstrates that anti-gay sentiment is based on irrational fears (source:

Consequently, by banning the word, the AP actually threatens its neutrality rather than preserving it. Patrick Strudwick, a political writer for The Guardian, argued that: "To shy away from describing this paranoia is to collude with it, to whitewash hate and prejudice" (source:

Other journalists claim that "phobia" has long been used to describe non-clinical attitudes. Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Boston Globe, said that writers often use the word "xenophobia" without suggesting that the individual has a mental disorder (source:

The Associated Press also released a memo on its position on how to refer to individuals in same-sex marriages. AP editors advised using the words "couples" or "partners" when describing people in civil unions or same-sex marriages. Effectively, this banned using the words "husband" and "wife" in reference to gay marriage, except in cases of attribution.

Banning the words "husband" and "wife" as terms to describe individuals in same-sex unions creates a distinction between marriages of members of the opposite sex and those of the same sex. While this distinction may clarify the nature of a relationship to a potentially confused reader, many argue that using "couples" or "partners" is discriminatory. Opponents claim that the differentiation creates a "separate but equal" policy that is inherently unequal.

More practically, however, using "couples" or "partners" lacks specificity. Gay marriage is presently legal in nine states, but if writers refer to a same-sex duo as a "couple," this does not specify whether the individuals are married or if they are just in a relationship.

The ban on the terms "wife" and "husband" when referring to members of a same-sex union and the word "homophobia" have already taken effect, and will be included the next print version of the AP Stylebook.

What do you think? I welcome your comments, suggestions, or corrections.

Brian Scott

Related links:
How to Eliminate Bias from Your College Research Paper
How to Avoid Sexist Language in Article Writing