Avoiding Bias when Writing Descriptors

Hello Writer Peeps,

Original photo courtesy of George Hodan via publicdomainpictures.net

As a child, I called my nephew “mentally retarded.” I adored Ronnie, and would never make fun of him. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, mentally retarded was polite. In time, he went from retarded to special, from Mongoloid to Down’s. And now we say a person with an intellectual disability and a person with Down syndrome.

This illustrates one of the biggest changes to American English in recent years: an emphasis on the person first. That is, we no longer define human beings by their descriptors. I’m not talking about Political Correctness. I’m talking about grammar.

Language evolves and adapts to social experiences, and we writers need to stay up-to-date. We can’t hold onto the language of our childhood, or even of last year, if we expect to write for today’s readers (unless you write historical fiction). Did you know, for example, that the official, Merriam-Webster definition of literally  is now either “exactly,” “basically,” or “figuratively”? So if I said that the word means literally nothing, that is technically, but not exactly, correct.

It is no longer acceptable to call people names, even if no offense is intended. Do not refer to a person as autistic, a cripple, a gay, a deaf-mute, etc. Every publication uses a style guide, so check yours. Some of these labels are still in common usage, but are technically no longer correct.

Do not say: “He’s autistic.”
Say instead: “He has autism.”
(In the first sentence, He equals autistic, as if the label defines him. In the second sentence, autism is something he has, but it does not define him.)

Do not say: “The handicapped entrance is around the corner.”
Say instead: “The entrance for people using wheelchairs is around the corner.”
(The entrance is not handicapped. It is for people who have a specific need.)

Do not say: “A group of Catholics met in the park.”
Say instead: “A group of Catholic people met in the park.”
(In the first sentence, the group is defined only by their religion. In the second sentence, Catholic is used a descriptor for people.)

Do not say: “This wedding chapel welcomes gays.”
Say instead: “This wedding chapel welcomes gay couples.”
(Using gay as an adjective describing couples, rather than as a direct object, emphasizes people, rather than sexuality.)

Do not say: “Braille is a tool for the blind.”
Say instead: “Braille is a tool for blind people.” (or …people with visual impairment.)
(Same as above. Use the descriptor blind as an adjective, and emphasize people.)

Do not say: “the learning disabled
Say instead: “those who have been diagnosed with a learning disability” nana-hooker-meme

You get it, right? People come first–not necessarily in word order, but in importance. This applies to anybody who may be discriminated against or slighted because of stereotyping of their sex, gender, social status, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or physical characteristics, among others.


  • Descriptive job titles For example, it is acceptable to say, “Firefighters arrived at the scene just in time,” or “The server brought our food quickly.”
  • When bias is central to the writing  Especially in fiction, but sometimes in non-fiction, bias is central to the meaning. It is not grammatically incorrect to include biased language when you are specifically trying to convey bias.

One last word of advice comes from the Chicago Manual of Style. “What you should strive forif you want readers to focus on your ideas and not on the political subtextis a style that doesn’t even hint at the issue.” (CMOS 5.224)

Are you keeping up with America’s ever-changing English? What changes have you seen? What expressions do you wish had stayed the same? Are these changes literally blowing your mind? Let us know how you feel in the comments. We’re all in this together.


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