It Makes Sense to Use Sensitive Language

Editing has several “golden rules” – plus quite a lot of silver and bronze ones, too – but high on the list is the classic Golden Rule we were taught as children: Treat others as you would have them treat you. What this means, among other things, is take care not to use language that treats some people as intrinsically inferior. Use sensitive language: as inclusive, conscious, and unbiased as possible.

From an editorial perspective, sensitive language is all about having the best effect on your readers. By using sensitive language, you’ll be less likely to offend any of your readers, and you’ll be more accurate with the terms you use. Your text will also be more credible. And the truth is – as we’ll see in a moment – it’s often easier to use language that’s less biased.

Biased language "distracts many readers and makes the work less credible to them." —Chicago Manual of Style, 5.251

There are five qualities to check to make sure that your text is as sensitive and as sensible as possible. Ask yourself: Is the language being used…

  • relevant?
  • accurate?
  • inclusive?
  • respectful?
  • thoughtful?

Let’s look at these one by one.

Is It Relevant?

One great thing about being sensitive in your use of language is that it can actually save you a lot of words – and fact-checking. If you’re working on an article and you see “Sage Lee, a 27-year-old Asian American local resident who identifies as female, spoke on the nightclub zoning issue,” before you double-check Sage Lee’s age, whether she’s Korean American or Chinese American (and whether you should hyphenate either of those), and whether “identifies as female” is accurate, stop and consider whether any of that, other than her being a local resident, is relevant. It may be – the nightclub zoning may have issues related to culture and gender – but it also may not be. In which case, congratulations! You now just have “Local resident Sage Lee spoke on the nightclub zoning issue.”

What things may not be relevant? Here’s a short list:

  • age
  • ethnicity
  • religion
  • ability status
  • gender
  • sexual orientation
  • social standing
  • eye color
  • hair color
  • height
  • attractiveness
  • any other personal characteristic

We don’t write “Sage Lee, who has small ears and excellent teeth, spoke on the nightclub zoning issue.” There’s no value in treating personal characteristics as automatically relevant, and there can be some harm – especially if you get something wrong.

Is It Accurate?

If you do need to mention a characteristic such as ethnicity, gender, or other social grouping, make sure you have it right. This isn’t just a matter of sensitivity; it’s a central part of editing. And, in fact, if you go to great lengths to make sure your language is sensitive, sometimes you run the risk of misrepresenting something important. For example, the terms “BIPOC” and “people of color” are likely not the most accurate terms to discuss topics if they are actually specific to Black communities. As CMOS puts it (5.253), “careful writers avoid language that reasonable readers might find offensive or distracting—unless the biased language is central to the meaning of the writing.” In which case you also need to make sure the readers know why it matters!

Is It Inclusive?

It’s been decades now since Star Trek’s writers realized that “where no one has gone before” is better than “where no man has gone before” (though the older version did allow for the unused loophole of a planet that had already been explored by women). And it’s been longer than that since it’s been socially acceptable to use racial epithets or terms that stereotype or belittle people who have certain attributes. We know now not to leave some kinds of people out arbitrarily or to treat some kinds of people as intrinsically inferior.

And as time goes by, we notice more and more cases where the language we’ve been using implies that not everyone is part of the same group of equals. Here are some examples of terms that are worth watching out for and replacing with something that doesn’t push whole groups of people into the corner or right out of the club:

Instead of…

Consider…

addicted to

love

binge-watch

marathon-view, marathon

blind spot

awareness gap

caveman

cave dweller

chocolate addict

chocolate enthusiast

craftsmanship

artisanship

crazy, loony, mad, psycho, nuts, deranged

wild, confusing, unpredictable, impulsive, reckless, fearless, lives on the edge, thrill-seeker, risk-taker, out of control, bizarre, wild, restless, intense overwhelming, sensational, unbelievable, absurd, ridiculous, confusing

crippled by, paralyzed by

impeded by, frozen by, stopped by

fireman

firefighter

guys

folks, everyone

his or her

their

housewife

homemaker

illegal immigrant, illegal alien

undocumented citizen, unauthorized immigrant

mailman

mail carrier

man-hours

labor hours

man-made

manufactured

manhunt

search

mankind

humankind

manned

crewed, staffed

men and women

people

opposite sex

different sex

policeman

police officer

pow-wow

chat, conversation, meeting

tribe

group, crew, circle, squad, community

wheelchair-bound

wheelchair user


It’s true that some of these terms are well-established idiomatic uses. It’s also true that they still carry unnecessary implications and attitudes about specific kinds of people. The fact that many of us didn’t think of that for a long time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it now. There are all sorts of things we’ve stopped or started doing once we’ve known better – the entire field of modern medicine is based on that fact. Modern editing too.

Is It Respectful?

When we talk about keeping language respectful, we don’t mean saying “Sir” or “Your Grace”; we mean not treating another person’s life as less important than your convenience. When editing, this means that sometimes you have to actually ask the person or persons involved (sometimes sensitive language does require a bit of extra effort).

For example, in disability communities, some people prefer person-first language: “a person with a disability.” This usage came about to avoid dehumanizing people or treating them as not more than their disability. However, others prefer identify-first language, which considers the characteristic as part of their identity: “a disabled person.”

Likewise, when you’re using titles such as “Mr.” and “Ms.,” you need to remember that these assume a characteristic that not every person identifies with, so it’s worth checking to be sure. Assuming that everyone can fit into the “usual” categories is like assuming that all people’s body measurements are within 30% of average: people who don’t fit into that generalization aren’t asking for special exceptions; they just don’t want to be treated as exceptions for the sake of someone else’s convenience or sense of tidiness.

Is It Thoughtful?

All of the above fits into "being thoughtful," but don't forget: you can’t really be thoughtful if you’re just doing it by reflex without thinking carefully. If you have a set of stock phrases you use by habit as “sensitive language,” every so often you’re going to make an assumption that’s not quite right… and end up not being as relevant, accurate, inclusive, or respectful as you thought. For example, we often refer to “the [specific characteristic] community” rather than saying “[specific characteristic] people,” but however honorable our motivations for that are, it can erase distinctions. “The Indigenous community” includes many different communities that often have almost nothing in common other than indigeneity, for example, so it’s best to find out which Indigenous community is involved and name them – or, if there are several, at the very least say something such as “local Indigenous communities.”

How Do You Keep Track of All This?

This is all a lot to keep track of, and it changes too! Every so often we learn that something we always thought was OK is actually unnecessarily inconsiderate. Good editors include all of this in a style sheet, but that doesn’t mean you won’t ever miss any of it. You could do a search for every possible insensitive term listed in your style sheet, but that can be tedious, and it takes up time that you could be using to really engage your mind with what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, and to whom, about whom, and why. It would be so much better if you could just push a “MAKE IT SENSITIVE” button.

There’s no such button, of course, because you can’t be thoughtful without having to do some thinking. But there is a way to quickly identify potentially insensitive terms. PerfectIt’s “Phrases to Avoid/Consider” check lets you build in every term you want to flag for your attention. For example, you can set PerfectIt to find gendered terms such as “manned,” “mankind,” and “man-hours” and suggest replacements such as “piloted,” “humankind,” and “labor hours.”

If you work with other writers and editors, you can use PerfectIt to help your colleagues be more sensitive too. You can provide suggestions and educational guidance for all your colleagues. People are more sensitive when they understand the issue. So you can use PerfectIt to flag a term or phrase for review and include a note with a researched explanation of why it would benefit from a second look – for example, if it finds “grandfathered in,” you can put a note explaining that the use of that term to mean “exempt from new rules” has problematic and racist origins and connotations in the US.

Conversation, Not Policing

Setting preferences in PerfectIt is so much more and better than some kind of robo-language-cop. The idea is that flagging terms for review starts a conversation about language use and can help people learn more about how terms can be viewed by those with experiences and perspectives different from their own. We can expand the inclusive language conversation by taking note of potentially problematic terms, offering substitutions, and providing details as to why some terminology may not be the best choice. And it’s always done with respect for the user’s professional judgment.

If you don’t have PerfectIt already, there’s a free trial. Try it and see why it’s the secret thoughtfulness enhancer of so many companies. Download the trial version here.

References and Resources

  1. Trans Journalists Association, Style Guide: https://transjournalists.org/style-guide/
  2. National Center on Disability and Journalism, Disability Language Style Guide: https://ncdj.org/style-guide/
  3. Conscious Style Guide: https://consciousstyleguide.com/
  4. Linguistic Society of America, Guidelines for Inclusive Language: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/guidelines-inclusive-language
  5. Disability in Kidlit, Introduction to Disability Terminology: http://disabilityinkidlit.com/2016/07/08/introduction-to-disability-terminology/
  6. Autistic HOYA, Ableism/Language: https://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html
  7. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), Cultural Competence Handbook: https://nahj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NAHJ-Cultural-Competence-Handbook.pdf
  8. #ConsciousLanguage on Twitter

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