Biased Language Definition and Examples

Prejudiced, Offensive, and Hurtful Words and Phrases

Biased language
  Steve Debenport 

The term "biased language" refers to words and phrases that are considered prejudiced, offensive, and hurtful. Biased language includes expressions that demean or exclude people because of age, sex, race, ethnicity, social class, or physical or mental traits. 

Bias in language refers to language that is uneven or unbalanced or not a fair representation, says the University of Massachusetts Lowell, adding that you should strive to avoid bias in writing and speaking because such language may contain “hidden messages” about the superiority or inferiority of various groups or types of people.

Examples of Biased Language

Bias is prejudice toward or unfair characterization of the members of a particular group, says Stacie Heaps writing on WriteExpress:

"Bias is so common in speech and writing that we often are not even aware of it. But it is the responsibility of everyone to become conscious of and write without bias."

Heaps gives several examples of bias together with alternative (and unbiased) phrasing:

Biased Language

Alternative

If he is elected, he would be the first person of color in the White House.

lf he is elected, he would be the first African-American in the White House.

He has had the physical handicap since he was 5 years old.

He has had the physical impairment since he was 5 years old.

There are many elderly people in our town.

There are many senior citizens (or seniors) in our town.

Be sensitive to the feelings of the opposite sex, minorities, and special interest groups says Cengage: Don't emphasize differences by separating society into "we" and "they" by singling out minorities, particular genders, or groups of people such as those with disabilities and senior citizens.

How to Avoid Bias in Your Writing

Purdue OWL provides some examples of biased language with alternatives you could use to avoid gender bias:

Biased Writing

Alternatives

mankind

humanity, people, human beings

man’s achievements

human achievements

manmade

synthetic, manufactured, machine-made

the common man

the average person, ordinary people

man the stockroom

staff the stockroom

nine manhours

nine staff-hours

You have to be on guard against bias because it can so easily creep into your writing or speaking, but Cengage says it's easy to avoid, as in this example:

  • Before a surgeon can operate, he must know every relevant detail or the patient's history.

Remove the bias with just a simple adjustment:

  • Before operating, a surgeon must know every relevant detail of the patient's history.

You can just as easily avoid bias in race. Don't say: "Attending the meetings were three doctors and an Asian computer programmer." In the example, Asian is preferred to Oriental, but why even single out this person's ethnicity? The sentence did not specify the ethnicity of the doctors, who were presumably Caucasian.

Examples and Observations

Be on guard for these types of bias in writing and speaking:

  • Age: Avoid derogatory or condescending terms associated with age. "Little old lady" can be rephrased as "a woman in her 80s," while an "immature adolescent" is better described as a "teenager" or "teen."
  • Politics: In any election campaign, words referring to politics are full of connotations. Consider, for instance, how the word "liberal" has been used with positive or negative connotations in various election campaigns. Take care with words like "radical," "left-wing," and "right-wing." Consider how your readers are expected to interpret these biased words.
  • Religion: Some older encyclopedia editions referred to "devout Catholics" and "fanatical Muslims." Newer editions refer to both Catholics and Muslims as "devout," thus eliminating biased language. 
  • Health and abilities:  Avoid phrases like "confined to a wheelchair" and "victim" (of a disease), so as not to focus on differences and disability. Instead, write or say "someone who uses a wheelchair" and "a person with (a disease)."

Biased language can defeat your purpose by damaging your credibility, say, Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu in their "Handbook of Technical Writing." They add:

"The easiest way to avoid bias is simply not to mention differences among people unless the differences are relevant to the discussion. Keep current with accepted usage and, if you are unsure of the appropriateness of the expression or the tone of a passage, have several colleagues review the material and give you their assessments."

As you write and speak, remember that "biased language insults the person or group to which it is applied," say Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II in their book, "The Scribner Handbook for Writers." When you use biased language—even inadvertently—you denigrate others, creating division and separation, they say. So, strive to use unbiased language, and you will show that as a speaker or writer, you are including all potential members of your audience without segregating and referring pejoratively to a select few.