How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing

By Mark Nichol - 2 minute read

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Gender and ability bias in language doesn’t register for many people, but that’s often because many of them do not belong to the classes who have been subjected to the bias. For example, many writers persist in referring to our species, collectively, as man or mankind, even though several reasonable alternatives exist: the human race, humankind, and humanity. Most (though not all) are men.

“Get over it” is a common counterargument to the assertion that because half of mankind is womankind, a gender-neutral alternative is more sensitive to that fact; man and mankind, the reasoning goes, have sufficed for most of recorded human history — sorry, I mean “man history” — and everybody knows it refers not just to the breadwinner, the man of the house, the king of the castle but also to the weaker sex, the little woman, the housewife.

Get my drift? Get over it, indeed. Man up, and join the human race.

One justification for opposing gender-neutral language is that it can be so cumbersome. Why convolutedly change he, as a generic term, to “he or she,” or his to “his or her”? We all know he or his can refer to a man or a woman, and English lacks an inclusive pronoun. (Except that it doesn’t — but I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Yes, repetitious use of “he or she” or “his or her” is ridiculous, but it’s easy to mix it up with it, the magical indeterminate pronoun, or to alternate between he and she or his and her in successive anecdotes, or to pluralize a reference and use they in place of a specific pronoun.

Or — gasp! — you can replace “he or she” with they. Kill the klaxon, switch off the warning lights, and think about it: They has been long used as a singular pronoun as well as a plural one. But not everybody agrees, so be prepared for pushback if you employ this solution.

References to physical disabilities are even more fraught with risks to sensitivity. Such constructions as “confined to a wheelchair” identify people by their limitations, which is discriminatory. It’s more respectful to refer to someone who “uses a wheelchair.”

What about, simply, “wheelchair users,” or “blind people,” or “deaf children”? These phrases violate what’s known as the people-first philosophy, which holds that any reference to a person should emphasize the person, not their disability.

So, refer to “Smith, who uses a wheelchair,” “people who are blind” or “people with visual impairments,” and “children who are deaf” or “children who are hearing impaired.” And it should go without saying that references to a disability are extraneous unless it is relevant to the discussion.

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76 Responses to “How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing”

  • Cecily

    Kathryn: If you add “human” to the pot, you get a very different picture. It has increased to take up almost all the slack left by the other three: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=mankind,humankind,humanity,human&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3
    Bang goes my sociology thesis!

  • Kathryn

    Cecily–Oh, interesting. And, yes, the drop in usage of the three original terms combined was interesting although that could have something to do with the increase in number of books being printed; I haven’t spent any time looking at the size of the various data groups. And, because “human” could appear in any number of contexts other than as a replacement for one of the other three, I think your thesis might still be on. Hmmmmm. Lemme go take a look at something. . .

  • Kathryn

    Yeah–if you use “human race” or “human species” in place of “human,” the yellow line drops to almost nothing. On the other hand, if you use “humans”. . .
    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=mankind%2Chumankind%2Chumanity%2Chumans&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    You’re right. HOURS I could waste playing with that!

  • Cecily

    Yep, ngrams are addictive.

    Here are some more comparisons of the rise and fall of potentially biased terms in AmE and BrE.

    The decline of “chairman” started in AmE well before BrE (~1950 compared with ~1980):
    Graph for AmE books: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=chairman,chairwoman,chairperson&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=5&smoothing=3
    Graph for BrE books: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=chairman,chairwoman,chairperson&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    “Chairwoman” barely features in either, so I suspect the slack has been taken up with “chair”, but searches for that would include furniture, so not be much use.

    You get a very different pattern with “headmaster”, “headmistress” and “headteacher”. (Writing them all as two words produces similar patterns, but with the change starting earlier.)

    In BrE, the huge decline in “headmaster” from ~1970 is almost completely replaced with “headteacher”: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=headmaster,headmistress,headteacher&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=6&smoothing=3

    In AmE, the decline of “headmaster” is earlier (~1960), but smaller, and the other two words have stayed level, so I don’t know what word is being used instead – perhaps “principal”? http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=headmaster,headmistress,headteacher&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=5&smoothing=3

  • Thomas

    What reallllly kills me is when congress refers to speakers as “gentle lady.”
    Ughhh.

  • Michael

    Yonks ago, there was an interesting episode of the American sit-com ‘Becker’ in which they rather cleverly discussed and debated the notion of political correctness. You may recall, the ‘hero’ of the story is not renowned as a champion of liberal dogma. At a little over four minutes, it’s worth watching.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ohXEV1A1Rg

    (‘Yonks’, by the way, is an Australian expression for ‘years and years’.)

  • Michael

    Kathryn,

    The Ngram thingy is my new favourite toy! Ta!

  • ApK

    @Michael
    “Yonks ago, there was an interesting episode of the American sit-com ‘Becker’ in which they rather cleverly discussed and debated the notion of political correctness. You may recall, the ‘hero’ of the story is not renowned as a champion of liberal dogma.”

    Holy Moly, that was great! have a new TV idol! I’m off to see if ‘Becker’ is available on Netflix now.

    By the way, like a sheep, I started doing the “@username” thing to quote because I see others do it here, but I realize I have no clue why. I’ve never seen it done before.

    What does the @username mean? Is it just some quoting convention, or does it mean “this comment is directed at this person” or what?

    ApK

  • Michael

    Dear ApK/@ ApK/ApK,

    I’m not sure which one to use, so I *tend* to emulate that which the other person seems to prefer, though I’m hardly consistent. Not sure what the convention is to be honest. If I had a preference I suppose it would be to use ‘Dear…’ to start with and then switch to the username only for familiarity’s sake. The ‘@’ symbol grates on me a little, but I’m of the generation introduced to the Internet in their twenties, so perhaps I’m a little old-fashioned.

    Can anyone shed some light on this?

  • Maeve

    @ ApK and Michael
    I started doing it because Daniel does.

  • Kathryn

    Michael–According to Dick Francis, the correct response would be “No sweat.” Anyway–you’re most welcome. It really can be a fascinating exercise. You’ve probably already noticed, but. . .at the bottom of the results page they have buttons that allow you to go LOOK at all the instances of each word. Now, THAT is a time-suck!

    And, I think “yonks” may be British as well–I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered it in British children’s books in the past. Cecily?

    I think the @username thing comes from Twitter, but I never managed to get the hang of Twitter.

  • Michael

    Kathryn,

    I’m British as well as Australian but in this instance choose to give my loyalty to God’s Own Country or ‘GodZone’, so will assert on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence that, as we cured the King of his stutter, so we gave the Mother Country ‘yonks’.

    This was, of course, yonks and yonks ago.

    🙂

  • Michael

    ‘the basis of’ is probably redundant.

  • Kathryn

    Michael: Ah! Well, I’ve no basis from which to dispute it, and the explanation has a certain charm. So, good to know!

  • Cecily

    Kathryn et al: I can confirm that “yonks” is common in BrE. The Concise OED says it’s BrE informal and dates from the 1960s.

    Regarding @, I’ve encountered it in lots of online groups, so I adopted it. However, in one group, several people said they found it unpleasantly abrupt, so now I don’t use it.

  • Michael

    Back on topic (though I enjoy the tangents very much): What are the forum’s thoughts on using ‘she’ to refer to a ship or a country? For my part, I’m apt to keep with tradition on this one.

  • ApK

    I didn’t know “she” was used to refer to countries. Even “fatherlands?”

    For ships, I stick with tradition. They are ‘she’.

    (And that for all the GOOD reasons, not because they are hard, fickle mistresses that cost a fortune to keep.)

    I have, however, accepted the relatively recent change to name hurricanes after both men and women alternately.

  • Michael

    ApK: Well, certainly in British/Australian English countries have traditionally been referred to in the feminine. Yes, even ‘fatherlands’. For instance, this was the first wartime speech of then Australian Prime Minister R. G. Menzies (1939):

    ‘Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially, that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement.’

  • Kathryn

    My type of writing doesn’t call for (and in fact would discourage) the personification of ships or countries, so I’d use “it.” And I think I’d extend that to any form of expository prose–why wade in those waters if you don’t need to? Fiction and poetry are a whole different question because the language used depends on many factors, the very least of which are time period, who is speaking, and narrative point of view.

  • Peter

    I’m British as well as Australian but in this instance choose to give my loyalty to God’s Own Country or ‘GodZone’,

    You’re British as well as Australian, but choose to give your loyalty to New Zealand? Interesting…good on ya, mate 🙂

  • Michael

    Peter: I also have strong family connexions in New Zealand so am quite accustomed to the Kiwis’ amusing if feeble attempts at humour and one-upmanship.

    Baaaa.

  • Peter

    Michael: I’m not a Kiwi…but I bought a tee-shirt in NZ, about 30 years ago, that featured a list of local icons and phrases, one of which was “GodZone” (I didn’t know what it meant for the longest time!); you reminded me of it…but I Googled it, and the wisdom of the Internet is that it means New Zealand. (My Kiwi office-mate tells me Aussies are always claiming NZ things…but insists I point out that you’re welcome to Russell Crowe)

  • Michael

    Peter: Are you trying to goad me sir?

    The ‘wisdom’ of the Internet can go hang.

    Russell Crowe is definitely a Kiwi, they’re welcome to Pavlova, and if their bands do well we adopt them as Australians. This is the natural order of things.

    I have three brothers, two aunts (one Maori), and six nieces and nephews, two grand-nieces and a grand-nephew in Aotearoa (look it up); I don’t like hokey-pokey ice cream; and they *think* they invented powered flight before the Wright Bros! So I—more than most—have every reason to be biased *against* the country that ‘glistens like a pearl, at the bottom of the world’. 😉

    (I do favour the All Blacks over the Wallabies though. Shhh.)

  • Michael

    Oh, and they talk funny.

  • Asa’adSIEO

    i speak to a specific audience and by logic, i will avoid discriminating. but hey , what i will be avoiding is discriminating against this particular audience. the problem is we get tangled with a bigger and much more serious problem. is discriminating occur just when you say it in my face? I think the best solution to all the problems is that to be honest with using words. words are meant to describe facts. what we are doing is describing words that describe facts.
    by the way, the links to ngrams open with an error: “You are accessing this page from a forbidden country.” why??
    am from syria by the way

  • Bill Adams

    My comment is not intended to attack the English language at all as it is a very dynamic language and borrows/adapts words from many others. Historically, it has been the male sex which has dominated it as can easily be noted by its “foreign” continental contemporaneous languages such as Spanish, French, German, etc. These languages, although nominally used in male dominated cultures, have nouns that have gender, number, and case. The English language today can also be modified to incorporate the other half of the population in every sentence to which “humankind”, both men and women, apply.

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