Verbal Energy

Are you a cyclist or a person who cycles?

An advocate's counsel on how to refer to people on wheels brings to mind the 'people-first language' used to refer to those with disabilities.

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    A cyclist rents a bike from Hubway outside North Station, on May 17, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Hubway is a bike-sharing system with more than 100 stations and 1000 bikes available in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.
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Do you get around, at least occasionally, on a bicycle? If so, are you a cyclist – or a person who cycles?

If you heed the counsel of Glen Koorey, a transportation researcher and cycling advocate in New Zealand, you'll call yourself a "person who cycles."

And if you want to lobby city hall for changes to make it easier to get around on two wheels instead of four, please, please, please, don't ask officials to "provide cycling facilities." Ask instead that they "provide for cycling."

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

Advocates for a better cycling environment have to be careful about how they present their case, lest they "score an own goal," Dr. Koorey warns – or, as we say in the United States, "shoot themselves in the foot."

His concern is that "cyclists" often conjures up "images of a relatively small bunch of 'weird' people," whereas "people who cycle" leaves open the possibility that these are otherwise normal people who also own and drive cars. And a call for "cycling facilities" is likely to suggest a need for major road rebuilding. But communities can "provide for cycling" without necessarily having to build anything, he says.

Koorey originally set forth these ideas in a brief paper in 2007. But they've just sparked a flurry of debate on a mailing list to which I subscribe. Somehow Koorey's paper, floating like a message in a bottle on the vast information ocean of the Internet, caught the attention of Jonathan Maus in Oregon. He's editor and publisher of a website called BikePortland.org. Someone on my list linked to his piece on Koorey's paper.

Mr. Maus feels he has found a soul mate: "It's as if he crawled inside my brain and then reported back what he found," he writes of Koorey. Maus particularly agrees that using the term "cyclists" is likely to backfire by suggesting some kind of bloc – "[a]s if we are all friends and we hang out in some basement plotting our next move."

He quotes Koorey: "It can be simple descriptions like this that can subtly serve to question the rights of those who cycle."

The mailing-list debate also involved the best terminology for people who walk. One contributor urged, "Let's all try to refrain from using the word 'pedestrian.' We're all people. We just happen to spend most of our lives not in cars."

But another countered, "Sometimes the word 'pedestrian' as in 'pedestrian-friendly' is unavoidable.... Sometimes 'people' works just fine, but other times it does not. We need many words to describe people on foot."

Koorey's paper is an interesting example of an advocate thinking aloud about how to choose his words in order to advance his position. But both his paper and the exchanges about walking call to mind the efforts for "people-first language," used in referring to people with disabilities.

This is the movement that has urged such formulations as "people who stutter" rather than "stutterers." The idea is "they're people first."

Such formulations, though not universally accepted, do help make the point, even if it takes a few extra words, that people are not their diagnoses.

As for cycling and walking, however: Good for Koorey, Maus, and their kindred spirits for being alert to this set of nuances. But I'm too steeped in the ethos of "Omit needless words" to be comfortable giving up on cyclist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn't this why we have nouns in the first place?

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