Editing Tips: What to Do with Biased Language

When editing a document, you might notice language that some might find offensive. But what should you do about biased language as a proofreader? In this post, we offer a few tips about what to look out for and how to handle biased language if you encounter it.

What Counts as Biased Language?

When we refer to biased language, we mean any language that suggests prejudice against a group of people. This includes language that demeans or marginalises people based on gender, race, age, sexuality, class, or their mental and physical traits. Key examples include:

  • Offensive terms – Some words are inherently offensive, such as racial and sexual slurs. Other words may be considered old-fashioned or insensitive (e.g. while ‘Indian’ was once a common word for Native Americans, most people now avoid it). If you see any offensive terms in a document, leave a comment noting the problem and suggesting an alternative.
  • Gendered language – While less overtly offensive, gendered language can also be problematic (e.g. defaulting to ‘he’ as a neutral pronoun, or using gendered terms like ‘policeman’). Most style guides now recommend using gender-neutral language instead. If you spot any unnecessarily gendered language in a document, you may want to suggest an alternative (e.g. the singular ‘they’, or a neutral term like ‘police officer’).
  • Generalisations and stereotypes – Sweeping generalisations about groups of people are often problematic, especially if they draw on stereotypes. If you see any unjustified generalisations or stereotypes in a document, you may want to highlight them for the client.

Depending on the brief you are working to, it may not be your place to edit biased language directly. But you should still highlight words and phrases that could cause offence, especially if you think your client may not have realised they are problematic.

If you do need to highlight anything, though, be sensitive! Your client may not appreciate being accused of bias because they didn’t realise the implications of a word. Thus, it is best to assume biased language is an innocent mistake when offering advice.

Person-First Language

If we’re not careful with our words, it is easy to reduce a person or group of people to a single characteristic. And this reductive language can be just as offensive as any other bias.

Typically, this involves describing people with an ‘adjective-first’ approach. For instance:

Disabled people face many challenges in terms of social access.

This is not an intentionally offensive sentence. However, referring to ‘disabled people’ could be seen to reduce those individuals to their disability, overlooking their personhood.

As such, many people prefer to use person-first language. For example:

People with disabilities face many challenges in terms of social access.

Here, we put the idea of personhood first, recognising those described as individuals rather than categorising them according to a single aspect of their lives. Thus, if your client uses a lot of adjective-first language, you may want to recommend a person-first approach instead.

But this is not always the best approach! For instance, while ‘people with disabilities’ may be the best option for referring to an abstract group, an individual may refer to themselves as a ‘disabled person’ or say they prefer this term. And, if so, it is best to follow their example.

Keep this in mind when considering whether the use of person-first language is appropriate.

Is Biased Language Ever Acceptable?

There are some situations in which writers may use biased language deliberately. In fiction, for instance, an author might have a character use a slur to show they’re bigoted or insensitive.

This is not to say that using biased language is fine as long as it is deliberate. If it is merely used for shock, with no relation to the themes or content of the text more generally, it could seem gratuitous. And this may distract from what the author is doing elsewhere in their work.

However, unless you have reason to believe your client does not realise the offence their language could cause, this is ultimately a matter of choice for the author.

As with any stylistic issue in proofreading and editing, then, you need to be thoughtful about when you make changes or comment on biased language in a document.

Sensitivity Readers

An increasingly common role in modern publishing is the sensitivity reader. This is someone who will read a manuscript with the express purpose of looking for stereotypical representations or problematic language, which they will then advise the author on how to address.

When working on fiction or literary non-fiction as an editor or proofreader, then, you may want to ask whether your client has used (or plans to use) the services of a sensitivity reader. And if a manuscript contains multiple issues that could be problematic, you could recommend to your client that they hire a sensitivity reader to help them address issues with representation or unconscious bias.

Learn More About Proofreading

As well as highlighting and correcting biased language, proofreading may involve making sure the tone and vocabulary of a text are suitable for its audience. For further information on this and more, check out our Becoming A Proofreader course. Sign up for a free trial today.

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Join the Conversation

Dhananjay Powle says:
February 26, 2021 at 11:33AM
it is wonderful to know so much about English language intricacies. i am really glad that i am working with proofreading academy. Thanks
Stephanie Lewis says:
April 8, 2021 at 3:44PM
Some helpful tips. thanks
Towab Muhammad Yusuf says:
October 1, 2022 at 7:17AM
Very Awesome tip & points and Help full blog. It really helps me

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