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Bias-free language

Bias-free or gender-neutral language is a type of inclusive language that acknowledges the full range of human qualities in both sexes and does not describe either sex using stereotypes; irrelevant references to details such as appearance, marital status or personality traits; or other biases. This type of language portrays men and women equally: neither sex is trivialized or treated as invisible or dependent. Because sexual stereotyping has traditionally affected women more than it has men, this article focusses primarily on avoiding this type of biased language.

Why is bias-free language important?

Over the years, English has developed in ways that sometimes exclude women or portray them in a stereotypical manner, describing them in specific roles (e.g. wife, mother, teacher) or referring to their physical or personal attributes (e.g. slender, fierce, spunky), when these details are irrelevant. Today, however, we live in a society of changing attitudes and are more sensitive to how language represents us and how it can produce and perpetuate certain ideas.

Inaccurate and unclear references are ineffective and can create biases in your writing. The bottom line is that biased language, employed intentionally or not, has no place in any organization and is likely to offend your readership. It is important for you to be aware of the guidelines for bias-free language so that you can be inclusive and avoid the common pitfalls. Your goal should be to describe women and men in ways that reflect their full roles in society. Using the appropriate terminology and vocabulary for each context is paramount. When in doubt, you should consult your style sheet or another authoritative source.

So what are the rules?

There are no set rules when it comes to bias-free language because writers, companies, governments, etc. all have different values and practices. However, this article presents guidelines to help you make your writing inclusive and up to date.

Sometimes, the easiest way to render your writing bias-free is to use plurals. Because English lacks a singular pronoun denoting the generic "he or she" (in French on), traditionally, the masculine pronoun has been used, but this practice is waning. Using gender-neutral terms (anyone, citizens) and referring to both sexes in a particular example (she and he, they) are also ways of avoiding criticism.

Keep in mind that, although it is important to use language that is fair and inclusive, you should not use convoluted constructions to get around wording or terminology that some might consider biased. You don't want to confuse your reader. If your resulting sentence is awkward, try to find a reasonable alternative or consider rewriting it. Being clear, precise and consistent is what matters most. Whereever feasible, you should apply the Guidelines for gender-neutral language.