The Importance of Unbiased and Inclusive Language in Academic Writing.

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The realm of academic publishing provides a platform for innovative ideas that hold the potential to shape our society and deepen our understanding of the world. However, the language employed to convey these ideas plays a pivotal role in shaping the way readers perceive the subjects under discussion. As a result, it is essential for academic writers and editors to ensure that the language they use is not only precise and accurate but also free from bias. This involves a conscientious choice of words and phrases that respect and represent diverse perspectives, identities, and experiences.

 

Why Is Inclusive Language Important?

According to The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), biased language can detract from readers’ attention and diminish the credibility of academic work. Diligent writers avoid language that might be perceived as offensive or distracting by reasonable readers. Researchers aspire to reach a broad readership and receive a positive reception. Offending the audience contradicts this goal. Therefore, it is prudent in academic writing to steer clear of words, terms, idioms, or arguments that exhibit bias or the potential to cause offense.

In academic writing, employing bias-free language also signals the author’s awareness of current issues and conventions. The use of biased or offensive terms may lead readers to question whether the author is aware of other potentially offensive language or uninformed about current issues.

 

Current Guidelines for Unbiased Language:-

Cultural standards and word meanings and usages are continually evolving, making it challenging to determine which terms are currently acceptable. For guidance, academic writers and editors can refer to authoritative style guides, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and CMOS, which provide comprehensive guidelines for producing writing that is bias-free and inclusive. This article offers an overview of the current guidance on inclusive language issued by these authorities and others.

 

Gender, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation

Before addressing one of the most contentious bias issues, gender, it is crucial to define some key terms. There is a significant distinction between sex and gender. Sexual orientation pertains to the various ways people can be romantically, emotionally, or sexually attracted to each other, while gender identity encompasses a wide range of psychological experiences related to how individuals perceive themselves, either aligned with or different from conventional categories. Sex and gender are distinct concepts and should not be used interchangeably.

Avoiding biased language is about respecting personal experiences and perceptions, and honoring individuals’ self-concepts. Language that reflects bias toward specific genders, gender identities, or sexual orientations fails to adequately respect and represent the full spectrum of human gender identity and sexual orientation. Examples of gender-biased language include using masculine terms to describe all people, such as using “mankind” instead of “humankind,” or categorizing people solely based on the traditional gender binary (male or female). To create language that fully represents the human experience, we should be guided by the principles of accuracy, respect, and inclusivity.

 

When referring to gender and sex in academic writing, follow these guidelines:

Avoid using masculine pronouns when referring to individuals generally. For example, don’t write “A student must return his homework on time” when referencing students of all genders.

Use plural, gender-neutral language (e.g., “Students must return their homework on time”) or omit pronouns altogether when possible (e.g., “Homework must be returned on time”).

Use “he/him” and “she/her” only if those pronouns match the people being described.

Avoid combination forms such as “s(he),” “s/he,” and “he/she.”

The use of “they” or “their” as a singular pronoun (e.g., “A student must return their homework on time”) to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or a person who prefers not to use traditional gender-specific pronouns is gaining acceptance as inclusive and respectful. However, see ‘Notes on the use of singular they’ below.

Eliminate sex-specific suffixes (e.g., use “actor” and “host” rather than “actress” and “hostess”). For compounds ending in “-man,” like “chairman,” the root form (e.g., “chair”) is often preferable to the clumsier compound ending in “-person” (e.g., “chairperson”), although some “-person” forms, such as “salesperson” and “businessperson,” are commonly recognized and used.

When gender is relevant, it’s fine to use the noun “woman” as a modifier (e.g., “woman negotiator”), though the adjective “female” is more desirable in parallel constructions (e.g., “25 male and 48 female students”).

Never use “lady” as an adjective (e.g., “lady scientist”).

If referring to a known person, use their self-professed gender and preferred pronouns, regardless of their assigned sex at birth. If you are unsure, ask the individual, use their full name, or rework the language to avoid using pronouns at all.

Use an individual’s current name and pronouns, even when referring to past events (unless they request otherwise).

Use terms like “gay” and “lesbian” instead of “homosexual,” which can be viewed as stigmatizing.

Recognize all nonbinary and genderqueer identities by using phrases like “all genders” rather than “both genders.”

Notes on the Use of Singular They.

Merriam-Webster notes that singular “they” has been in use since the 1300s and mirrors the development of the singular “you.” Despite its extensive history, the use of singular “they” has long been controversial in formal writing and is still seen by some as an error when it references a singular indefinite antecedent. Acceptance of this usage is growing, however, and the next edition of the AMA Manual of Style will formally endorse it. For now, the AMA’s editors recommend recasting the sentence to avoid singular “they” in formal writing. CMOS still advises against using “they” as a singular pronoun in formal contexts when referring to individuals whose gender is unknown or irrelevant but acknowledges that authors may use it when following other guidelines that specifically allow it. CMOS does, however, endorse the use of singular “they,” even in formal writing, when a specific, known person does not identify with the pronouns “he” or “she.” The APA’s guidance on singular “they” is more progressive and straightforward – it can be used when the gender of the person in question is unknown or irrelevant and when an individual prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” When using the reflexive form of “they,” the correct usage is “themselves” rather than “themself,” which should be avoided in formal writing. The usage of singular “they” is controversial and rapidly evolving, so always check your style guide’s current position on this point. For more detailed guidance, see the APA’s guides to writing about gender and sexual orientation, as well as the Trans Journalists Association’s Style Guide.

 

Racial and Ethnic Identities

In “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts,” the AMA argues for the urgent need to challenge the dominant narratives about race.

 

When addressing race and ethnic identity in academic writing, follow these guidelines:

Be as specific as possible when referring to ethnic groups (for example, when you mean Korean or Vietnamese, avoid using the broader term Asian).

Capitalize the names of ethnic and national groups, whether used as nouns or adjectives: Inuit, South African migrants, Indigenous people.

Check your style guide’s position on capitalizing “Black” and “White.” Both of these terms are capitalized in the current APA and AMA guidance. CMOS is less prescriptive, noting that capitalizing “Black” as a racial or ethnic identity is becoming more common, and that “White” may also be capitalized for consistency. However, some style guides offer different recommendations: the guidelines for SAGE Publications direct authors not to capitalize “white” to avoid the negative connotations associated with the capitalized form. Always check your style guide’s recommendations.

Use “people of color” and “communities of color” when referring to groups of people who are not White and who cannot be more specifically identified.

Do not use the term “non-White” or other terms that treat Whiteness as a default.

Avoid the term “BIPOC,” which implies a hierarchy among communities of color.

For more information, see the APA’s guidelines on writing about racial and ethnic identity, the AMA’s “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narratives, and Concepts,” and the Sage Inclusive Language Guide.

 

Indigenous Peoples:

Indigenous peoples have a wide range of different identities, cultures, and experiences, and the language we use should reflect that.

When referring to Indigenous people in academic writing, follow these guidelines:

In Canadian and Australian English, capitalize “Indigenous” when referring to the original inhabitants of a place (Indigenous Australians, Indigenous people). UK and US usage permits the lowercase form (indigenous people).

Refer to groups of people as they refer to themselves; for example, “Inuit” rather than “Eskimo,” “First Nations” rather than “Indian,” “Sámi” rather than “Lapps.”

When referring to a group, use the term “peoples” or “nations” rather than “tribe,” and be as specific as possible. For instance, in Australia, Indigenous nations encompass several distinct groups of people, including the Yolngu, Arrernte, Noongar, and Kaurna.

If you’re unsure how to refer to a specific group, seek guidance from local community organizations. Preferences for general terminology differ between (and sometimes within) groups of people. For example, some Indigenous Australians identify as First Nations Peoples, while others prefer the term Aboriginal Australians.

For more information, see the APA’s “Indigenous Peoples Around the World,” the Australian Government Style Manual’s page on “Inclusive Language: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples,” and the Journalists for Human Rights’ Style Guide for Reporting on Indigenous People.

 

Disability

When writing about people with disabilities, there are two main approaches. In person-first language, the person is emphasized over the condition, so you would say a person with an amputation rather than an amputee or a person with paraplegia rather than a paraplegic. In identity-first language, the disability is the focus, allowing the individual to reclaim and even embrace a condition that once had negative connotations. For instance, some Deaf individuals prefer to be called Deaf rather than people who are deaf.

When talking about disability, you can use either person-first or identity-first language – or a mixture of the two to avoid repetitive syntax – unless or until you know that a group clearly prefers one approach, in which case you should respect that preference. If you need guidance on the preferred way to refer to a specific group, seek clarity from self-advocacy groups or other stakeholders specific to that group of people.

 

General Guidelines:

Regardless of which approach you use, certain general guidelines apply when writing about people with disabilities:

Avoid terms that apply restriction or confinement (e.g., “wheelchair-bound”).

Avoid terms that label people as powerless or passive (e.g., “AIDS victim,” “brain-damaged”).

Avoid terms that could be seen as slurs (e.g., “mentally unstable,” “invalid,” “alcoholic”).

Avoid condescension and euphemisms (e.g., “special needs,” “handi-capable”).

Use specific language (e.g., “person with schizophrenia,” “person with alcohol use disorder,” “Deaf person”).

Further Reading

For more information and a detailed list of problematic and preferred terminology, see American Psychological Association: “Disability,” the AMA’s “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts,” and specific advocacy groups such as the National Association of the Deaf and the National Autistic Society.

Age:

Many of the terms typically used to talk about age can be stigmatizing, especially in research contexts.

To avoid age bias in academic writing:

Use specific age ranges, medians, and means when reporting research methods.

Avoid terms like “the elderly,” “seniors,” and “the aged.” Use “older adults” or “older individuals” instead.

Be cautious with terms like “young people” or “youth,” and ensure they are used appropriately based on context. The APA provides examples of specific and appropriate alternatives.

Be mindful of outdated terms such as “senile” or “geriatric” (Geriatric is acceptable in reference to healthcare but not people; for instance, geriatric ward.)

Use neutral language that does not propagate negative attitudes toward aging.

Further Reading

For more information on writing about age, see American Psychological Association: “Age” and the AMA’s “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.

Socioeconomic Status:

Socioeconomic status encompasses an array of characteristics and experiences involving opportunity, privilege, and outcomes. Precise language should be used to ensure specificity and sensitivity in the particular study context.

 

General Guidelines:

Avoid stigmatizing language related to socioeconomic status, such as “poor people.”

Opt for relevant and neutral phrasing, such as “people with low income” or “under-resourced individuals.”

Avoid euphemisms for socioeconomic status, which can be pejorative and stereotyping. For example, the terms “the homeless,” “inner-city,” “poverty-stricken,” and “welfare-reliant” carry negative connotations. Instead, adopt specific and person-first language.

Avoid making assumptions or generalizations about a person’s capabilities, values, or worth based on their socioeconomic status.

Further Reading:

For more information, see the APA’s guidance on writing about socioeconomic status and the AMA’s “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts.

Staying Up to Date:

Language evolves constantly, so it’s crucial for both writers and editors to stay current and pay close attention to the discourse surrounding inclusive language and shifts in usage. A term that was deemed acceptable a few months ago may now be controversial. Remain open to feedback, continually educate yourself, and consult up-to-date resources. If you’re an editor, encourage the authors you work with and your peers to flag non-inclusive language to help prompt change.

Inclusive language involves more than just adhering to guidelines and ticking boxes. Instead, internalizing a critical approach to the words we use ensures that we create environments and contribute to narratives that value, respect, and represent all individuals.

 

 

 

 

 

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