When Bias-Free Language Excludes

And when biased language promotes visibility.

A metal cup full of color pencils.

By Karen Yin • October 5, 2016


Biased language has gotten a bad rap, but the truth is, bias-free language has its issues, too. The idea behind bias-free language is not to strip all attributes (such as age, race, and gender) from language but to examine how biased words, representations, and narratives prejudge. However, prejudices can persist when no restrictions are placed on language, especially when the reader is misled into believing that the whole represents all the parts.

The part-as-whole problem with bias-free language is nothing new. As a child, I read that most babies are born with blue eyes—shocking until I realized that the author meant Caucasian babies but didn’t specify. Nowadays, LGBT proliferates in headlines for articles about only the L and the G, lesbians and gay men. Writers cover sports without specifying men’s as if only men’s sports matter. Talk of diversity during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was reduced to a discussion of Black and White people. When only one part has relevance but the bias toward that part is not reflected in the language, the issue becomes factual accuracy, not just politics or fairness.

We need biased language to promote visibility of the parts that have been pushed aside.

While it’s impossible for writers to be aware of all their conscious and unconscious biases, editors can focus on significant biases whose omission does a disservice to marginalized communities. Also, biased terms can be used to direct attention to a community, like Black Lives Matter. When the dominant narrative presents a partial view, we need biased language to promote visibility of the parts that have been pushed aside. So not only is there a need for biased language, but using neutral, generic, or so-called inclusive language in spite of a significant hidden bias can misrepresent the parts. In that way, we end up excluding people from the conversation.

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” Winner of the Robinson Prize in 2017 for furthering the craft of professional editing, Karen was a columnist for Copyediting and the keynote speaker at the Northwest Independent Editors Guild's Red Pencil 6 conference.


Note: This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter and is reproduced with permission from the Pilcrow Group.

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