Bias-Free Language

"Don't struggle to use a term or construction that feels awkward to you. Rewriting the sentence often avoids the problem successfully."

-- Malinda McCain


Here are some recommendations for writing to welcome
everyone to your website.

Often the best way is to rewrite:
Don't struggle to use a term or construction that feels awkward to you. Rewriting the sentence often avoids the problem successfully. Casting a sentence in plural may help, or you can even try using first person: Students can improve their writing with practice. You can improve your writing with practice.

Pause and consider.
Is describing a person's age, gender, nationality, ethnic background, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, mental and physical characteristics, or socioeconomic status ever appropriate? Yes, sometimes it is. How can you decide?

Here's a test:
Substitute an analogous term for the one you're questioning and decide if you would use it in a similar situation. For example, if you're considering saying "female police officer," would you say "male police officer" in a similar sentence?

Unless you're making a point about pay equity or hiring practices, you probably don't need to designate the person’s gender. On the other hand, if you're critiquing a new restaurant, saying it is (or isn't) accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair is helpful.

The Chicago Manual of Style (Chapter 5.254) suggests writing in such a way that "on the one hand, that no reasonable person could call sexist and, on the other hand, that never suggests you’re contorting your language to be nonsexist."

The following tips may help:

  1. Pronouns: Avoid using masculine pronouns as "generic": We all like to see our names in print. [not "Everyone likes to see his name in print."]
  2. Cultural balance: In fictitious examples, vary the characters’ names to represent many cultures. In real-life examples, check for balance in your survey. Not everyone is named John and Mary and Sue. How about Johann, Maria, Tawana, and Sun-Li?
  3. Ageism: People of all ages have many abilities. A woman is a woman at any age -- she doesn't become "a little old woman" or "feisty" when she reaches a certain birthday. According to the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, girls become women at age 18. The American Psychological Association advises writers to be specific: Girl refers to those in high school or younger (under 18). Young woman or female adolescent may be used for those in high school. Use woman for 18 and over. (The same is true for boy/young man/man, by the way.)
  4. Ethnocentrism and nationalism: The Web is a world-wide phenomenon. Not all of your readers will know where Cincinnati or St. Louis is without more explanation. Are you referring to Milan, Italy, or Milan, Michigan, USA?
  5. Disabilities: Refer to people first, and then – only when it's pertinent – to their disability: With good design, your website will be accessible to people who are blind. [Not "to the blind"]
  6. Nationality: This can be complicated. For example, Latino or Latina and Hispanic are the most commonly accepted ways to refer to the general community of people from Latin America. Some people prefer to be called Hispanic and others think you should say Latino, but mostly the terms are used interchangeably. Chicano and Chicana, on the other hand, refer specifically to people of Mexican descent born in the United States. Some people use this name proudly, while others dislike the term and find it offensive, so it's best not to use it unless you know the person prefers it. These conventions can also be different in different parts of the United States. The best thing is to ask people what they prefer. In general, the more specific you can be, the better: for example, Mexican, Colombian, Spanish (meaning from Spain), El Salvadoran, Cuban. Even then, some people prefer to say they are Latino or even American.
  7. Gender-related terms: Be sensitive to new attitudes about transsexual and transgender people. For example, refer to transgender people as being the gender they identify as, not their birth gender. Terminology in this area is developing, and not everyone agrees. The only sure way to know what will be comfortable for your audience is to ask.

Thanks to Janine Warner and Erin Wiegand for input on this page.