Three Linguistic Tips for Talking About COVID-19

By Suzanne Wertheim, Ph.D.

April 23, 2020

I'm a linguistic anthropologist, and, like so many people, I've been endlessly focused on COVID-19 for a few weeks now.

It looks like one of our biggest issues in this pandemic is convincing people that:

  1. It is deadly serious.
  2. The consequences of their actions may be life or death.

I have some suggestions about how to talk about #COVID19 to help with this message.

Our linguistic choices can amplify a message. Or they can muddy it, and lessen its impact. Here are three ways you can amplify the message of personal responsibility, communal responsibility, and harm reduction.

1. Say "known cases" or "confirmed cases" and not just "cases"

Always use the phrases “known cases” or “confirmed cases” and not just “cases.” Here in the US, barely anyone has been tested. By saying “cases of COVID-19”, we make it sound like there is a known quantity.

Those cases out there. Those people.

Those other people who are not me.

But when we say “known cases” or “confirmed cases” we change the framing. And subtly remind people that THEY or PEOPLE THEY KNOW may be infected.

This framing reinforces that we don’t know who is infected, and it is therefore of utmost importance to be careful, because the infected person might be you.

2. Make agency explicit

A lot of writing about COVID-19 uses phrasing like “the virus spreads by…” This kind of phrasing hides what linguists call “agency.”

Who is the agent of the action? Who is doing the thing?

The virus isn’t spreading itself. PEOPLE are spreading the virus.

When we hide agency, it is easy for people to not feel like they are the ones responsible. Even if they are.

I love sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s analysis of linguistic agency and Jackie Robinson. People say things like “Jackie Robinson, he broke the color line.”

But this framing hides the agency of white people.


A more accurate description is “Jackie Robinson, the first black man that whites allowed to play major league baseball.”

When we say “the virus spreads,” we are hiding the agency of the people responsible.

In the earliest days, it wasn’t clear what responsible or irresponsible actions were. But now that we’re several months in and it’s a global pandemic, it’s clear.

So let’s make agency explicit all the time.

Instead of “the virus may be spread by…” say something more like “You may spread the virus if…”.

Which brings me to my last suggestion.

3. Say "you" and "we" for agents of the action

When talking about the virus, use “you” and “we” whenever possible instead of more third-person words like “they” or “people.”

In my anti-bias research and training (my academic and post-academic work), one obstacle I come up against again and again is the mentality of Not us. Not here. Not now.

My clients and my audiences know they are good people.

Racists and sexists and people with bias are bad people.

They are those people over there, not here. They are people from a long time ago. Not modern people living now. They aren't us.

But 100% of humans are biased. And if we don’t identify and address that bias, it takes us off course. It makes it hard to align our intentions and our actions.

I see the same pattern when it comes to COVID-19.

I see people distancing themselves from their agency – the idea that it’s on them to do the right thing and stay at home. And I see people distancing themselves from the idea that they themselves might get really sick and die. Not here. Not now. Not us.

One way to combat this mentality is to say “you” instead of “people.”

Instead of “People should stay home and only go out for essentials.”


“You should stay home and only go out for essentials.”

I started writing this yesterday, and in that time, some politicians have started talking about how a certain percent of the population may just have to be sacrificed so the markets can bounce back in a timely fashion. This feels like the ultimate in “not us, not here.”

Who do they think is going to die?

Not just other people (darker-skinned than me, poorer than me, living in a different place from me, less able-bodied than me).

It will be people here and now.

Us. Our people.

And, of course, our community includes all those people. They are all us. There is no us and them in this virus, except for human (us) and virus (them).

So those are my suggestions to amplify the messaging of both personal and communal responsibility.

1. Always say “known cases” or “confirmed cases” as a reminder that we don’t know who is and isn’t infected.

2. Make agency explicit every chance you get. No more passive “the virus is spread by…”.

3. Make those agents “you” and “we” whenever possible to remind us that it is on every one of us to do the right thing.

How Language Can Help us Fight Covid-19 Webinar


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