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Language Matters: The Importance of Sensitivity in Writing – Part 1

Language Matters: The Importance of Sensitivity in Writing – Part 1

The way people write, along with the way people speak, is constantly evolving. Although at times there may be debate over the degree to which language should be reined in to consider of the sensitivities of various groups, a consensus has emerged in recent decades that the language we use in communicating with the public should be inclusive and free of bias.


When submitting a paper for publication, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of expressions that can be perceived as biased to improve your paper’s chances of publication and suitability for a global audience. In the same way that we check our papers for grammar, spelling and readability, we should be also ensure that the language we use is inclusive to all who may read it. As writers, we want to hold readers’ attention so that they will want to read our paper in its entirety. Using language that may offend some readers may diminish your credibility and keep people from reading your research.


To do this, you must make sure your writing is free of implied judgments based on race or ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or age. For those of us who live in highly homogenous societies or those with more traditional gender roles, it may be a little harder to pick up on biased-sounding expressions in our writing. Try putting yourself in others’ shoes: reading your paper, would you feel offended or excluded if your group was substituted for the one you are discussing? What if you were a member of the group being discussed? If so, changes are in order.


Writing without prejudice or bias

Overtly sexist or racist language is rare in scientific documents. Typically biased expression appears in subtle ways that the author may not even be aware of.


Writing that excludes some groups in favor of others, or treats ethnic/racial groups as unequal creates the perception that the writer is prejudiced. Similarly, writing that presents men and women as unequal, or excludes one or the other without reason will be perceived as sexist.


Avoiding sexist language

Sexism is more common in scientific writing than one might think, although it is often unintentional and unconscious.


A few examples of sexist expression:

  • Enterprising men and creative women have recently shown interest in home-based businesses.(note that different terminology is used for the genders, suggesting a bias)
  • Doctors need more free time to spend with their wives and children.


The fact that English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun makes it hard to avoid sexist language. Here are some alternatives that may help.


1. Using plural constructions. Writing your sentence in the plural may let you avoid using third-person singular pronouns. However, English grammar rules should still be followed.


  • Biased: A scientist should carefully document his experiments.
  • Grammatically incorrect: Every scientist should document their experiments.
  • Better: Scientists should document their experiments.


2. Gender-neutral titles. There are often good alternatives to gendered titles.


  • Not inclusive: policeman; chairman; stewardess
  • Better: police officer; chairperson, flight attendant


3. When referring to people generically, use gender-neutral terms


  • Not inclusive: man; mankind; manpower
  • Better: humanity; humankind; staffing


4. Using articles in place of the third person singular possessive.

S/he, his/her, and he/she are awkward and diminish readability. One way to avoid this is to use neutral expressions in place of the possessive form.


  • Biased: The housekeeper should return her uniform by Wednesday.
  • Better: The housekeeper should return the uniform by Wednesday. OR Ask the housekeeper to return the uniform by Wednesday.
  • Awkward: Each student must check that s/he brings in his/her permission slip.
  • Better but still awkward: Each student must bring in his or her permission slip.
  • Best: Each student must bring in a permission slip.


Next time: Part 2 - Avoiding bias by sticking to relevant descriptions and comparisons


by Scott Wysong, Quality Control Editing Team