Unbiased Language

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

Recent changes in social awareness have made people think about the ways language tends to downgrade certain groups. Common sense and some specific strategies can help you avoid suggesting putdowns where you don’t intend them.

The “Man” Trap:

Many standard wordings seem to assume that every individual is male. Repeating he and she, him and her, his and hers at every reference is clumsy. Finding alternatives can be as simple as using plural rather than singular, or avoiding a pronoun altogether.

seems to exclude women Man is a tool-building animal.
inclusive Humans are tool-building animals.
seems to exclude women Every artist has learned from those who came before him.
inclusive but awkward Every artist has learned from those who came before him or her.
inclusive Every artist has learned from previous artists.

Dated Quotations: Wordings from historical or literary texts often don’t follow these principles. You may feel awkward using them, but commenting isn’t usually worthwhile. In academic writing, do so only if you are sure the original meaning was distorted. Paraphrasing can help show contemporary interpretation of the idea you want to cite:

obtrusive Pope probably meant more than the male population when he said, “The proper study of mankind [sic] is man [sic].”
more subtle Pope affirmed the need for human self- awareness when he said, “The proper study of mankind is man.”

Confusing the Group and the Individual:

Many academic disciplines focus on group behaviour and can describe it precisely. Don’t get stuck in the habit, though, of referring to people only as representatives of categories. That’s especially important if you’re writing about (and perhaps to) individual clients or patients or students.

  • Avoid using adjectives as collective nouns: females, natives, gays, Orientals, the blind, etc. Nouns like women or blind people are easy substitutes in most cases.
  • Terminology can reflect important distinctions. That’s the justification for terms like hearing-impaired or partially sighted. (A hearing-impaired person has partial hearing, while a profoundly deaf person has none or almost none.)
  • On the same principle, consider whether you can give more specific information. How much sight, and what kind, does the person have? Was Gandhi just Asian, or would be it be more useful to specify what part of India he came from, and even from what caste? In a marketing analysis, too, data about people’s behaviour tells you more than stereotypes.
  • Some terms have outlived their usefulness. Again, it’s more precise as well as more considerate to note that a person has XXX syndrome rather than saying he’s a dwarf or an idiot. (“Vertically challenged” is only a joke.) Racial terms notoriously change fashion: black has gone in and out of favour, for instance, and native or aboriginal are preferred to Indian. As in the case of gay, the criterion should be what people in a specific group want to be called. Again, any adjective used as a noun (a black, a diabetic) seems to reduce people to one characteristic.

Gendered Labels:

Terms that label people simply on the basis of their sex have often gathered negative overtones:

  • Feminine forms of words such as poetess or woman doctor are certainly outdated, since they suggest that a woman in the role of poet or doctor is not the real thing. That’s the trouble with policewoman and chairwoman too. You can nearly always replace such terms with a non-gendered form: poet, doctor, police officer, chair.
  • Titles like Mr., Mrs., and even the recently invented Ms. are less and less used orally in most parts of North America, and their function in writing is small. They are still expected in the salutations of formal letters such as applications (Dear Ms. Lee), but are seldom necessary in internal memos. If you’re on first-name terms with your reader, address the memo TO: Sandra Lee and sign it FROM: John Pereira. It’s also acceptable to say Dear Chris Singh and bypass the question of gender.
  • In academic writing, such titles and the honorifics Professor and Doctor are almost never used. Use only last names when you refer to your sources, even if they are eminent authorities. When your writing concentrates on a specific figure, you may want to give the full name on first mention, then revert to last name only:

    e.g., Emily Dickinson was thoroughly familiar with popular musical forms of her day. . . . In using the ballad stanza, however, Dickinson varies the meter for her own artistic purposes.

Further References

  • American Psychological Association. APA Publication Manual, 4th ed., 2.13 to 2.17.
  • Miller, Casey and Kate Swift. The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing.
  • Ontario Women’s Directorate. Words That Count Women In.
  • Ontario Ministry of Citizenship. Word Choices: A Lexicon of Preferred Terms for Disability Issues.
  • University of Toronto Status of Women Office, Gender-Neutral Language Guidelines.