What Is Bias Free Language?

It’s important to write in a way that makes your audience feel respected. Here, we’ll explore what you need to know about what is bias free language.

Bias-free language is inclusive and sensitive regarding race, gender, age, disability, and more. It’s easy to pick up novels from years past and see how writing has turned toward a bias-free style in the past few decades. Today, many writers are working to create stories that bring people together rather than pulling them apart.

What is Bias in Language?

In most cases, biased and discriminatory language results from outdated words and phrases that have somehow stood the test of time despite being offensive to specific groups of people. Often, these words and phrases are passed from one generation to the next, resulting in younger generations using the offensive words and phrases without knowing their origin.

If you’re a writer who is learning about the importance of bias-free language for the first time, it’s normal to feel anxious or worried that you’ve written some of your work in a biased way in the past. While correcting mistakes and apologizing when necessary, moving forward and doing the best you can to write in a bias-free manner from here on out is essential. Biased language has words that can be hurtful or discriminatory and makes certain groups feel that they’re misrepresented or misunderstood.

If you’re writing about a group you are not a member of, it can be challenging to know whether you’re using biased language. Sometimes, authors use biased language to try to make a point or show the negative side of a particular character. While this can be an effective strategy, writers must be careful that their creative efforts don’t demean, belittle, or disrespect their audience.

When you work to write in a bias-free way, you’re showing your audience that you’re working to be inclusive of all people and that you value your readers. Unfortunately, if you’ve never thought about how your language may be biased, you’ll likely come across some words and phrases that would best be replaced with unbiased options.

Why Bias-Free Language Matters

When you try to remove biased language from your writing, you’re doing the hard work required to begin correcting past generations’ mistakes. You aren’t just using more fitting words to explain what’s happening in your novel, poem, or short story. Instead, you’re making valuable changes to show that you’re not going to accept language that hurts or demeans certain groups of people.

It can take time for language to change, and doing your part is the first step in removing harmful and hurtful language from the vernacular of your audience. When you put time and effort into choosing words and phrases that get your point across without bias, you do your part to make a difference.

Types of Bias in Language

What is bias free language?
Many terms are racist against people of color

When discussing bias-free language, many people jump to talking about topics currently under debate regarding political correctness. That being said, there are many different types of bias in language:

  • Race: Many terms are racist against people of color. For example, many people don’t know that the term “peanut gallery” is racist against African American people or that “long time no see” is considered racist against Asian American and Native American people. Learning about the origin of phrases and words is essential, especially for writers in the United States, where segregation and slavery are a part of our not-so-far-off history.
  • Ethnic Identity: Ethnicity is different from race. Genetic heritage determines race, while cultural practices determine ethnicity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs. For example, people might identify as Latino or another ethnicity.”
  • Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation is a person’s sexual identification. These can include gay, pansexual, heterosexual, bisexual, and more. Writing in a bias-free way regarding sexual orientation can include thinking about staying away from stereotypes related to sexual orientation or not assuming that all of the characters in your novel are straight.
  • Gender Identity: Using proper pronouns when writing about transgender and cisgender people is essential. Ask if you’re writing about a person and aren’t sure of their preferred pronouns.
  • Age: Instead of calling people elderly, it’s wise to refer to senior citizens as seniors or older adults. Many people feel that the word elderly means a person unable to care for themselves or is not valued in society.
  • Ability: When writing about a person with a disability, it’s wise to ask them whether they’d like their disability to be mentioned. Some people with a disability want to share their differences with others, while some do not.
  • Health: Writing about both mental and physical illness can be tricky, and it’s wise to talk with someone with the condition you’re writing about to learn more about appropriate language for describing their ailment.

Examples of Biased and Bias-Free Language

Here, we’ll look at some examples of biased language, how it can be changed into non-biased language, and why the change matters.

  • Biased Language: “No more comments from the peanut gallery, please.” Bias-Free Language: “Let’s keep our comments to ourselves until the presentation is finished.” Why: The term “peanut gallery” was used to describe people who could not afford pricey seats (and ate peanuts while watching the show) at Vaudeville shows. Often, these seats were filled with African American audience members. Therefore, using the term “peanut gallery” infers that one group’s opinion is not as valid as other groups.
  • Biased Language: “Long time no see!” Bias-Free Language: “I haven’t seen you in a while!” Why: It’s unclear exactly where this phrase originated, but historians and linguists agree that it was likely used to belittle Native Americans or Asian Americans.

Using a Sensitivity Reader

When you’re not a member of the group you’re writing about, it can be helpful to work with a sensitivity reader before publishing your work. A sensitivity reader is someone you pay to carefully read your novel, short story, or other work, who will then discuss any areas of your work that need to be updated due to sensitivity concerns. Choosing a sensitivity reader, who identifies as a member of the group you’re writing about, to check your content is wise.

When editing for grammar, we also recommend taking the time to improve the readability score of a piece of writing before publishing or submitting

  • Amanda has an M.S.Ed degree from the University of Pennsylvania in School and Mental Health Counseling and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She has experience writing magazine articles, newspaper articles, SEO-friendly web copy, and blog posts.