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To Grammar’s House

Confine this phrase to the trash heap

Racers in the wheelchair division competed at the London marathon last month.


Racers in the wheelchair division competed at the London marathon last month.

To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.

We have come a long way in the past few decades in excising from speech and publications pejoratively descriptive words for entire groups of people, whether they be different by race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or physical or mental capabilities.

These words hardly ever even make it to the copy desk anymore, with one exception.

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Sometimes writers still write ‘‘confined to a wheelchair,’’ and sometimes that phrase also whizzes right by the capable editors on the City Desk.

But here’s why that phrase is proscribed in the Globe stylebook.

Prisoners are confined to their cells. Animals in zoos are confined to their cages. Airline passengers are confined to their seats. All have lost a freedom. But people who use wheelchairs do not consider themselves confined to them. It’s a matter of perspective. People who use wheelchairs view them as liberating. They can go where they want, usually, if buildings and sidewalks and public transit meet the accessibility codes. (That is another topic.) If it were not for the wheelchair, people who have mobility problems would pretty much be confined to their beds, to their homes, to their rooms. If we were describing someone who couldn’t go anywhere, that would be the correct use of “confined.” We should be careful not to relegate wheelchair users to that category.

It’s a matter of respect.

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