There’s an old phrase that says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And this might be true in physical terms, but it ignores the power of biased language. The words we use matter.
We’ve written before about gendered pronouns in academic writing, but bias can also occur in relation to race, age, sexuality, class, and disability. And while we can’t cover all of these topics in one go, we can offer some guidelines on avoiding biased language in your written work.
1. Insensitive Language
If you’re writing about an individual or group of people, consider their point of view. A big part of this is using the correct terminology, which means:
Using the language people use to describe themselves.
Avoiding words that could be insulting to the people you’re writing about.
In most cases this will be obvious. However, some older books will use old-fashioned terms that are now offensive. It is no longer acceptable, for instance, to refer to a Native American as a “red Indian.”
Should you need to quote a passage with an old-fashioned term that is now considered offensive, check online for guidance. You can always edit the quotation to use a more sensitive term if required.
2. Recognizing Individuality
Not being reductive is key for avoiding biased language. This means recognizing people as complete beings rather than reducing them to a single quality, such as their skin color or sexuality.
The following, for example, could be seen as reductive:
Historically, albinos have often been persecuted.
In this case, the word “albinos” reduces a large group of human beings to a medical condition. A more sensitive way to phrase this sentence would be:
Historically, people with albinism have often been persecuted.
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Here, we’re still talking about a large group of people with a shared quality. But by phrasing it as “people with albinism,” we acknowledge their personhood rather than simply reducing them to a genetic disorder.
This person-first language is therefore a good default, especially if referring to groups in the abstract. However, if referring to a specific person who does not like the “person with” phrasing, use their preferred terminology.
For instance, while you might say “people with disabilities” when referring to an abstract group, if a specific person refers to themselves as a “disabled person,” or they say they prefer this term, you should follow their example.
3. Avoiding Generalizations
Try to avoid generalizations when discussing groups of people. This applies even when the generalization could seem “positive.” For example:
Germans are always efficient, so they make good managers.
Being efficient is usually a good thing, so could be seen as positive. But, at the same time, unless you have surveyed everybody from Germany, you can’t know that every German person is “efficient.”
Rather, the idea of Teutonic efficiency is a stereotype. And even positive stereotypes are problematic. This is partly because they draw on other negative stereotypes. But it’s also because they make sweeping generalizations, which are reductive and inaccurate. Thus, it is better to avoid generalizations like this altogether, especially in academic work.
4. Have Your Writing Proofread
As a final bonus tip, may we suggest having your work proofread?
A professional check will help you express your ideas clearly, as well as picking up on old-fashioned or inappropriate vocabulary. And as such, it should help you avoid using biased language in your writing.