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Choose Your Words: Avoiding Biased Language

You cannot avoid writing from perspectives and backgrounds that you know about, but you can avoid divisive terms that reinforce stereotypes or belittle other people. Be sensitive to differences. Consider the feelings of members of the opposite sex, minorities (now sometimes called "world majorities"), and special interest groups. Do not emphasize differences by separating society into we (people like you) and they or these people (people different from you). Use we only to be truly inclusive of yourself and all your readers. Be aware, too, of terms that are likely to offend. You don't have to be excessive in your zeal to be PC ("politically correct"), using underachieve for fail, or vertically challenged for short, but do your best to avoid alienating readers.

Gender    Some readers object to language that makes inherent assumptions about gender, seeing the preference for male forms as symbolic of society's prejudices: "A man's home should be a place of comfort and security." Others view man and the suffix -man as historically referring to all people, a gender-free use. In general, though, readers of academic writing expect you to avoid stereotypes.
Avoid Use
actress actor
authoress author
chairman chairperson
female astronaut astronaut
forefathers ancestors
foreman supervisor
mailman mail carrier
male nurse nurse
man, mankind (meaning
 any human being)
person, people, our species,
 human beings, humanity
manmade synthetic
policeman, policewoman police officer
salesman sales representative, salesclerk
veterans veterans and their spouses

With the use of pronouns, too, avoid stereotyping. One solution is to rewrite the sentence to avoid using a pronoun:

  Faulty    Before a surgeon can operate, he must know every relevant detail of the patient's history.
  Revised    Before operating, a surgeon must know every relevant detail of the patient's history.

An alternative is to use the phrase he or she to refer to a singular word:

  Revised    Before a surgeon can operate, he or she must know every relevant detail of a patient's history.

Sometimes the best strategy is to use plural pronouns and other plural forms, which do not show gender.

  Revised    Before surgeons can operate, they must know every relevant detail of a patient's history.

Race   Name a person's race only when it is relevant. If you write "Attending the meeting were three doctors and an Asian computer programmer," you give more information about your own stereotypes than about the meeting. In addition, use the names people prefer for their racial or ethnic affiliation. Consider, for example, that black and African American are preferred terms; Native American is preferred to American Indian; Asian is preferred to Oriental.

Place   Avoid stereotyping people according to where they come from. Some British people may be stiff and formal, but not all are. Not all Germans eat sausage and drink beer; not all North Americans carry cameras and wear plaid shorts.

Be careful, too, with the way you refer to countries and continents. The Americas include both North and South America, so you need to make the distinction. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland make up Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. In addition, shifts in world politics and boundaries have renamed many countries: Burma, has become Myanmar; Ceylon has become Sri Lanka; Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe; Czechoslovakia has been divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Check a current atlas or almanac.

Age   Avoid derogatory or condescending terms associated with age. Little old lady can be rephrased as woman in her eighties; an immature adolescent is better described as a teenager.

Politics   As we all see in any election campaign, words referring to politics are full of connotations. Consider, for instance, how the word liberal has been used with positive and with negative connotations in various election campaigns. Take care with words like radical, left-wing, right-wing, and moderate: how are your readers expected to interpret them? Are you identifying with one group and implicitly criticizing other groups?

Religion   An old edition of an encyclopedia referred to devout Catholics and fanatical Muslims. The new edition refers to both Catholics and Muslims as devout, thus eliminating biased language. Examine your use of words that sound derogatory or exclusionary, such as cult or fundamentalist, and terms — such as these people — that emphasize difference, or even the word we when it implies that all your readers share your beliefs.

Health and abilities   Avoid terms like confined to a wheelchair and victim (of a disease), so as not to focus on difference and disability. Instead, write someone who uses a wheelchair and person with (a disease). Do not draw unnecessary attention to a disability or an illness.

Sexual orientation   Refer to a person's sexual orientation only if the information is necessary to your content. To say that someone was defended by a homosexual lawyer is gratuitous when describing a case of stock market fraud, but more relevant in a case of discrimination against homosexuals. Since you will not necessarily know your readers' sexual orientation, do not assume it is the same as your own, and beware of using terms and making comments that might offend.

The word normal   One word to be especially careful about using is normal — when referring to your own health, ability, or sexual orientation. Some readers could justifiably find that offensive.

See also
Word Choice Checklist
Dictionary and Thesaurus
Exact Words and Connotations
Tone and Language
Figurative Language
Avoiding Tired and Pretentious Language