Bias-Free Language

"Bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect. Sometimes it means leaving out certain kinds of words altogether, such as not describing someone's physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose."

-- Malinda McCain
Editor

 

How to welcome everyone to your website through your language.

This is what you’ll find here:
·  Introduction
·  General recommendations
·  A list of terms with suggested substitutions
·  Related links

Introduction
When you build a website, you want people to look at it and enjoy it. You might be trying to sell things or you might just be trying to express some ideas or have some fun. Whatever the purpose of the site, people will not stay unless they are comfortable. Sometimes language can turn people off when you don't want it to; if you want to avoid this but aren't sure how, keep reading.

What is bias-free language?
Basically, bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect. Sometimes it means leaving out certain kinds of words altogether, such as not describing someone's physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose.

My best tips
The three most important guidelines I’ve found -- and they work in every case:

  1. Whether you are describing a group of people or individuals, ask them what terminology they use.
  2. If you can't do that, be as specific as possible.
  3. Keep the person in the description: people who are blind (not the blind).

Resources
When I first developed these lists several years ago, not much information was available on the Internet. Now many sites can be found. I've added a page of links to some of the best. Some are quite specific and others are more general. Please look through the link page -- you may be surprised at what is available.

Most style guides include information about bias-free language, including the Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association Style Guide, and the Associated Press Style Guide.

Why use bias-free language?
The bottom line is that certain terms will offend some of your readers (potential customers), and who wants to turn off a customer? Most of us have no desire to offend anyone, but we occasionally do it unintentionally. My goal is to help you understand the most offensive terms so you can avoid them.

By the way:
I'm not here to debate the need for bias-free language, or even to defend it. If you're not interested in the topic, please move on to another site. If you are interested, you'll find lots of useful information here.

This is about opening doors.
Whenever people talk about accessible design in buildings, my favorite example is doors. A heavy door is a problem for people who are blind or people who use wheelchairs. It is also a problem for children, for old people, for pregnant women, for anyone who is carrying packages or a baby. Making doors easy to open helps lots of people. In the same way, making your website bias-free opens the door to lots of people. (Designing your website for accessibility also opens doors. Here's a place to learn more about accessible design.)

How can you know what to say?
Even the folks to whom the terms apply don't necessarily agree on how to use them. If possible, ask the person you're writing about. Explain that you don't want to be offensive and you're not sure what to say. Most people will appreciate your sincerity and be glad to help.

Who decides?
The UNESCO guidelines state, "The aim of this booklet is not to abolish certain words or to alter historically established texts; nor is it suggested that these guidelines be followed to the letter. For the sake of equality, however, writers are asked in every case to pause and consider the alternatives [emphasis mine]." Good advice.

Don't be discouraged.
Diana Hacker, author of A Writer's Reference and other books, said, "With practice, writers can learn to satisfy everyone: the grammarians, the feminists, the stylists, and those who are annoyed by so-called political correctness."

Email Malinda at ShareWords if you:
·  Have additional information or links to offer
·  Have questions about bias-free language (specific examples)
·  Want information about my copyediting and consulting services