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3 min Read
March 25, 2020

Words to avoid—COVID-19 edition

Communicating about the coronavirus isn’t easy. 

Whether your nonprofit feels rushed to react or is still looking for the right words, we hope these five guidelines for writing about the virus help.

Social distancing

There’s a growing shift toward using the phrase “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.” 

The latter suggests reducing social contact, which can have a negative affect on mental and psychological health. Physical distancing is more accurate because it focuses on the act of increasing physical distance to protect ourselves and others. It’s also more inclusive to our social and psychological health needs. 

Physical distancing encourages people to maintain the communications—calling, writing, and video-chatting loved ones—that help us stay connected and healthy.

If you try using physical distancing in your nonprofit’s communications, be sure to describe what it means in plain language. For example, “We’ve been practicing physical distancing. That means we stay home and don’t invite friends or family over. We call or text our loved ones to see how they are doing.” See Nautilus for more on the move to physical distancing.


We recommend avoiding words that sensationalize, exaggerate, or unduly influence your audience’s emotions. These include adverbs like easily, soon, never, and highly, as well as subjective phrases that evoke fear, like collapse, downturn, or outbreak. 

For example, the phrase, “Everything will be fine,” is hyperbolic language that plays into emotions negatively. It also lacks meaning and compassion, as it denies the uncertainty your audiences are experiencing.

As you communicate internally and externally, we suggest being as specific and accurate as possible while affirming your audiences. Remaining factual and precise will ensure your nonprofit is seen as rational and grounded.


Try to avoid using the adjective “viral” to describe anything unrelated to COVID-19 right now— even in internal conversations. It could make your nonprofit appear oblivious or insensitive to the current situation.

For example, rather than “a campaign going viral,” talk about “a campaign that appears successful” or “a campaign that people have been sharing widely.” The latter is more precise and meaningful.


Avoid spreading misinformation about the virus that perpetuates or promotes racism or xenophobia. We recommend referring to the virus as a serious global issue that affects all of us instead of attaching it to a specific location. 

Use technical language when referencing the virus—either coronavirus, COVID-19 virus, or SARS-CoV-2—to maintain accuracy and uplift our shared humanity. 

The AP Stylebook created (and has been continually updating) a coronavirus topical guide that explains the differences between these scientific terms and when to use them.


We recommend using inclusive, person-first language when referring to people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Avoid using the phrases “COVID-19 victims” or “COVID-19 cases.” 

Choosing to define someone by the disease is not only dehumanizing, but it can also perpetuate stigma and harmful assumptions. Instead talk about “people who have COVID-19,” or “people who may have COVID-19” (if they haven’t had the opportunity to be tested yet). See the World Health Organization’s guide for more dos and don’ts when talking about the coronavirus.

Whenever possible, ask the person you’re writing about how they identify themselves in relation to the disease, and use that terminology. Honoring what they say is truly person-first.

More words to avoid and smart messaging practices will likely arise as the situation evolves, but we think these three guidelines will help you make stronger word choices long-term.

Big Duck has hosted a series of webinars that are available to watch for free around crisis communications, facilitating online meetings, and donor communications to offer nonprofits additional communications-specific support during these unprecedented times.

We’ll be creating more topical content as we hear feedback from our clients and friends. Sign up for our email list to make sure you get our latest insights and offerings.

Here are other useful messaging resources we recommend:

National COVID-19 Messaging Document — Brave New Words

Talking About Coronavirus: Centering Language around Inclusion, Empowerment, and Justice – The Opportunity Agenda