Watch Your Language: How COVID-19 is Changing Communication

Blog August 27, 2020

Valuable COVID-19 Communication Tips You Need to Know 

The coronavirus is changing the economy, education, and yes, even language itself — at an unprecedented rate. From the Oxford Dictionary to the tiniest tweet, the pandemic is reshaping the way we connect. 

The following tips can help keep your communication on the cutting edge.


1. You say ‘Rona, I say Corona… 

COVID-19 slang makes the dictionary. From the Macmillan Dictionary

For clear communication, it’s crucial to be consistent when talking about the coronavirus. Let’s start with the AP Style Coronavirus Topical Guide essentials:

  • Even though the viruses are an entire family, you can refer to “the coronavirus” on the first reference to COVID-19.
  • If referring to the virus, “the COVID-19 virus” works. But keep in mind that “COVID-19” is the name of the disease, not the actual virus. Incorrect: “I’m worried about catching COVID-19.” Correct: “I’m worried about catching the coronavirus.”
  • Lowercase “the coronavirus” and keep the article “the.” You can ditch “the” in headlines or when using “coronavirus” as an adjective, such as “They voiced coronavirus concerns.”
  • AP Style and Chicago agree on all-caps for “COVID-19,” but sources like The New York Times and The Guardian use “Covid-19,” and The New Yorker uses small caps. Whatever you choose, mark it in your style guide and stay consistent.
  • Remember, for hashtags like #COVID19, don’t use hyphens, or you’ll break the link.

A possible exception: AP says not to shorten to “COVID,” even in headlines, unless it’s part of a quote. However, I don’t see this happening in common usage, so I wouldn’t sweat it for social media, but I’d keep it “COVID-19” for formal communications. 


2. Epidemic? Pandemic? …Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off!

Both “epidemic” and “pandemic” first appeared in the 17th Century in the wake of the great plagues. “Pan” means “all” and “-demic” comes from the word for “people.” A pandemic is global, while an epidemic affects a region or population. 

The World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, so that’s the term to use. Since “pandemic” implies “all,” it would be redundant to say “a global pandemic.”


3. New Slang

Language gives us the common social vocabulary to cope, and the pandemic has coined several new terms that might be fun to spice up your social media:

  • “Covideo Party:” Host an online movie night, where everyone presses “play” at the same time and chats virtually. It’s a great way to “quarantine and chill” (a take on “Netflix and Chill”). Not to be confused with COVID parties! 
  • “WFH:” This acronym for “Working from Home” has been around since 1995, but it only became ubiquitous recently. Why not tout the top WFH tips with your staff and students on Twitter?
  • “Blursday:” With social distancing, every day can start feeling the same. You can offer inspirational student-made art, music and poetry on your Instagram to offset the blursday blues.

4. Mudslinging

And then, some words can be offensive and are better to remove from your social media channels when they pop up in comments.

  • “Covidiots:” A pejorative used to describe those who ignore social distancing rules, it’s a combo of “COVID” and “idiots.”
  • “Boomer Remover:” Ugh. An insensitive term about how the pandemic is affecting older individuals. Press flag, report and delete.

Other word choice considerations:

  • “Cases:” According to the AP Style Guide, don’t refer to people as “cases.” You can say, “100 people tested positive for the coronavirus,” or “100 cases of the virus were reported,” but not “100 cases tested positive for the coronavirus.”
  • Avoid terms like “contagion” and “pathogen,” according to AP. Use more descriptive, less-charged words like “disease,” “illness” or “virus.”

5. Own Your Tone

Tweet from the Host/Editor of the #BayCurious podcast @KQED

As the cultural climate changes, be sensitive to your tone across channels:

  • Consider changing your email sign-off. Swap “Have a great day,” or “Happy Friday,” which could be tone-deaf to those affected by the crisis, to “Thank you and take care,” or “Warm regards.” “Be safe” might be triggering to those with sick family members.
  • Be sensitive right now: no all caps, no exclamation marks, and avoid over-the-top language. According to a recent article in Forbes, “The less attention-grabbing and more empathetic language is working at creating more engagement.” 
  • Twitter shares that now is the time to show how your organization is helping others, a no-brainer for community colleges. From offering food banks to laptop loan programs, use social media to show how you are benefiting students.

Not sure if you’re hitting the mark? Have a coworker proofread an email or do some A/B testing before launching a major campaign. You can also drop us a line anytime — we’re always happy to help. ❤️


Written by “word nerd” and Interact copywriter Rachel Rosen-Carroll. For fun, Rachel reads style guides and the dictionary (she prefers The American Heritage Dictionary… we wouldn’t make this up). 

When she isn’t writing feature stories about inspiring community college alum, she’s working on her YA novel, short stories and poetry, and she has been published by various lit journals. Ask her questions or suggest word nerd blog ideas at rachel.rosencarroll@interactcom.com.  


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