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Language Matters: The Importance of Sensitivity in Writing – Part 2

Language Matters: The Importance of Sensitivity in Writing – Part 2

In our last installment on sensitivity in writing, we looked at the general importance of considering your audience and how your work is presented. We also covered specifics on how to spot inadvertent bias or prejudice in your work, and how to keep your language gender-neutral. In this post, we look at some more subtle details of inclusive writing.


Only mention differences that are relevant and use inclusive language

It’s important to choose clear, accurate, unbiased words when talking about a person or people. Using man/mankind to refer to all human beings is less accurate than people or men and women. And as discussed last week, it may also offend readers because it presumes everyone is male unless otherwise stated. Likewise, using the generic masculine to refer to all people implies the same presumption.


To avoid the appearance of bias, think about whether a difference is relevant before mentioning it. If a person’s race/ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabled status is not relevant to the manuscript topic or the data you’re discussing, it probably shouldn’t be mentioned.


Avoid group labels

Study participants should not be deprived of their status as individual human beings. It’s usually better to refer to elderly people, rather than the elderly. Avoid pejorative expressions such as the psychotics (or the psychotic group) and instead use patients with psychoses. By the same token, people should not be labeled by their disabilities. Using the term normal may stigmatize those with differences and imply they are abnormal, (e.g. the transgendered group vs. normal adolescents). Neutral expressions like “paraplegic patients who use a wheelchair” are preferable to emotional expressions like “paralysis victims confined to a wheelchair.”


Maintain natural style

Political correctness, or language sensitivity taken to extremes, has become a hot-button issue in recent decades. Sometimes in the attempt to be inclusive and avoid the appearance of bias, writers will use terms that are actually less descriptive and more jarring because they are politically loaded or unnatural, which may even serve to accentuate the issue you are trying to avoid. An example of this might be “differently abled” in place of people with disabilities. Although well intentioned, it tells us nothing about the persons being discussed because ultimately everyone is differently abled. These types of experiments in making English less biased have tended not to be adopted over the long term. We suggest a common-sense approach, using inclusive and gender-neutral expression appropriately, and being sensitive to those who might feel hurt or excluded, but at the same time avoiding use of made-up words or unnatural expressions that might actually distract from what is actually important, your research.



  • Biased: Sickle cell disease occurs mostly in blacks.
  • Better: Sickle cell disease is most common in those of sub-Saharan ancestry.


  • Biased: A good dentist always cleans his instruments between patients.
  • Better: A good dentist’s instruments are always kept clean.


  • Biased: One female stricken with lupus declined to answer the survey.
  • Better: One woman with lupus declined to answer the survey.
  • Better: One female lupus patient declined to answer the survey.


  • Biased: All the diabetics in the treatment group were overweight.
  • Better: All the patients in the diabetes group were overweight.


See Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for more useful information from the APA Manual about reducing bias in language.


by Scott Wysong, Quality Control Editing Team