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How Power Embedded in English Can Undermine Your Work

By Sarah Moore on August 31st, 2016

Ownership, power, and violence are embedded in the English language. From possessive grammar to catchphrases with violent metaphors, how we communicate about our work can subtly undermine our best efforts at healthy community change, especially when working directly with communities.

Whether English is your first language or thirteenth, its maze of rules—and exceptions to the rules—can make it difficult to use effectively in work that strives for health and wellbeing. While living in Spain years ago, learning Spanish led me to view English in surprising new ways, especially when it came to how English speakers talk about ownership of blame, things, and even people.

For example, in English, when you lose your keys, the blame’s on you. You lost them. Silly person! English puts us in control and gives us power over things, even our mistakes. On the other hand, with Spanish you are a victim in a minor tragedy. You might say, Se me perdieron las llaves, or, The keys lost themselves on me. Silly keys! The same is true for other accidental happenings like breaking things, forgetting things, or running out of things. What’s more, in English it’s not only your fault that you lost the keys—they are also your keys. In Spanish, they’re usually just referred to as the keys, (which have minds of their own, apparently). English-speakers seem to own everything: our keys, our dog, our friends, our neighborhood. This can imply that we have power over them.

Power and ownership aren’t necessarily negative. When engaging communities in the change process, a sense of empowerment and shared ownership are ideal outcomes. However, when advocates talk with residents or talk about the work, we frequently use phrases with embedded power imbalances or violent references. Here are just a few:

  • There is no silver bullet solution, but there are sure-fire ways to trigger a response in your target audience and take aim at your goals… without alluding to weapons. This Gun Thesaurus offers alternate terms that are more aligned with creating healthy, safe communities. We can also watch for common phrases that reference battles or aggressive sport metaphors. (How many times have I talked about “tackling” a problem instead of solving it?)
  • Aggressive metaphors are an obvious way that power seeps into our language. Less obvious are the words that we use daily to talk about our working relationships with communities. We might say, Give/provide residents opportunities/resources/training, etc. The words give/provide place the giver in a position of power and cast residents as recipients rather than equal partners. This can stall efforts to build trust and detracts from the legitimacy of community-led change efforts. Instead, use words like involve/include/engage and describe specific actions you’re taking together.
  • Allow/let/permit residents to take on new responsibilities. These words imply separation and power imbalance. Put another way, they’re “gatekeep-y.” Sometimes there’s no way to avoid the fact that you will be in a decision-making position, but when you talk about your work, try to use more inclusive words like encourage/enable. This signals that, rather than acting from a position of authority, you are facilitating leadership of all partners. For more on this, check out the Spectrum of Public Participation.

As a language enthusiast, the last thing I want to do is ban words or phrases. After all, some problems deserve a good tackle! But when it comes to the complex and often delicate work of community-led change, your word choices matter because they influence people’s ability to trust you.

In your work, what other examples have you noticed? Share this post on Facebook and Twitter and mention phrases you’ve come across. Or email/tweet me your thoughts—I’d love to learn from you!

Sarah Moore


Artist and advocate for natural places.