Copy Editing Commandment #2: Thou Shalt Use Bias-Free Language

Most people are  familiar with the problem of gender-biased language.  Many terms have been changed to include both genders:

mankind → humankind

fireman → firefighter

spokesman → spokesperson

housewife → homemaker

But do you notice anything wrong with the  following sentences?

  1. One of the committee’s members was confined to a wheelchair.
  2. The First Nations kids experience segregation at school.
  3. An elderly man was attacked last night in the neighbourhood.

Depending on the context, these sentences are inappropriate because they make assumptions.

“Confined” to a wheelchair? A person in a wheelchair is no more confined than a person sitting in a regular chair. And why is this committee member being singled out for sitting in a wheelchair? Was the committee working on wheelchair-accessibility? That would be relevant. Otherwise, there is probably no reason to single out this particular member.

In the second sentence, an ethnocentric point of view may be in play. Are those kids indeed being segregated by the larger homogenous student body, or is the school made up of many cultural groups that tend to stick to themselves? In the latter case, describing the First Nations kids as segregated is biased. Be aware of making assumptions.

The third sentence is an example I often see in newspapers. Is it important that the victim was elderly? Maybe, maybe not. What is the definition of elderly, anyway? Sixty-five? Seventy-five? With people living longer, healthier lives, describing someone in their 50s, 60s, or even 70s as elderly may be misleading (because I would argue that elderly is used to imply frail).

In all cases, ensure the description is relevant, and treat your subject with care, being aware of their individuality.

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Filed under bias-free language, editing and writing, usage

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