• 3-minute read
  • 1st January 2018

3 Ways to Avoid Biased Language in Essays

There’s an old phrase that goes, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. But while this might be true in physical terms, it ignores the power of biased language. The words we use matter.

We’ve written before about biased language and gender in academic writing, but it can also relate to factors such as race, age, sexuality, class and disability. And while we can’t cover all of this in a single blog post, we can offer a few pointers on how to avoid biased language in writing.

1. Insensitive Language

If you’re writing about any individual or group, try to consider their point of view. A big part of this is using the correct terminology, which means 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 considered offensive. It is not acceptable, for instance, to refer to a Native American as a ‘red Indian’.

Should you need to quote a passage which uses a term you think might be offensive, check online for guidance. You can always edit the quotation to use a more sensitive term if needs be.

2. Recognising Individuality

Also important is not being reductive. This means not reducing people to one thing about them, such as their skin colour or sexuality. The following, for example, could be seen as reductive:

Historically, albinos have often been persecuted.

In this case, the problem is that ‘albinos’ reduces a group of humans to a medical condition. A more sensitive way to phrase this sentence would be:

Historically, people with albinism have often been persecuted.

Now, we avoid identifying the people we’re discussing purely with a genetic disorder, putting their personhood first instead.

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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 Generalisations

Finally, avoid generalisations when discussing a group of people. This applies even when the generalisation could seem ‘positive’. For example:

German people are always efficient, so they make good managers.

Being efficient is a good thing. But 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 may draw on other negative stereotypes. But it’s also because they make sweeping generalisations, which are typically reductive and inaccurate.

As such, it is better to avoid generalisations like this altogether.

Expert Proofreading

To be sure you don’t accidentally used biased language, it pays to get your language proofread. As well as checking for errors, our editors can offer feedback on vocabulary, suggesting alternatives for terms that might be considered offensive. And you can try our services for free! Simply upload a 500-word trial document today to find out more.

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