People-first language

In discussing drug-related issues, it is often useful to identify, describe and discuss groups of people who have aspects of their behaviour or their personal situation, or other characteristics in common. This can support insight and understanding and improve the way people are treated and supported. However, in describing groups of people, the language used can sometimes become very impersonal and this may contribute to depersonalisation, ‘othering’ and stigma.

One means of addressing this is to use terms like ‘people who use drugs’ rather than impersonal terms like ‘drug users.’ This is called people-first language.

The personalisation of language can mean people become more conscious that they are speaking about people rather than in abstractions. This may help reduce and challenge stigma (see stigma). Sometimes using people-first language makes people more specific about the group of people they are referring to. For example, general terms like ‘drug users’ may be replaced with more specific terms like ‘people who use cocaine’ or ‘people who inject drugs’ etc.

One problem that arises in the use of people-first language is that terms become longer than other terms. For this reason, acronyms are sometimes deployed; for example, ‘people who use drugs’ becomes PWUD and PWID is used for ‘people who inject drugs’. This is generally accepted in written reports and research papers; however, in spoken language using terms like ‘PWUD’ or ‘PWID’ simply defeats the purpose of people-first language which is to ensure the humanity of people within groups is not forgotten. This is regarded as bad practice.

Another issue is that the media are resistant to people-first language as it tends to be more ‘long-winded’ and less ‘punchy’ than other language – especially in newspaper headlines.