Tag Archives: linguistic prejudice

Linguistic prejudice: towards more inclusive editing and proofreading practices

By Erin Carrie

Close up photo of poppy buds, with one starting to open

I recently wrote an SfEP blog post discussing linguistic bias and prejudice, and encouraging editors and proofreaders to reflect on our roles and how our own biases may influence our working practices. In the post, I also highlighted what I consider to be problematic discourse within the profession, which is often reflective of the wider public discourse around language use. As a follow-up, this blog post provides more concrete – and, in many ways, more subtle – examples of linguistic bias and prejudice.

It’s one thing to accept that linguistic bias exists within the editing and proofreading profession and quite another to identify how it manifests itself and the ways in which we might work to prevent it. Once we start checking for unconscious biases in our daily practice, we come to realise that there are no simple do’s and don’ts. But, in my own experience of editing and proofreading (and having my work edited and proofread), I’ve become mindful of various ways in which we might be able to carry out our work in a more sensitive, inclusive and representative fashion.

1. Do encourage the use of sensitive and inclusive language but check that suggestions align with the author’s intention.

By means of example, a proofreader changed every instance of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ in one of my research papers and, despite being well-intentioned, this change misrepresented which of these factors I’d investigated and how I’d gone about my research.

2. Do respect people’s rights to self-identify and to identify others in a more inclusive manner.

This applies to every aspect of identity but a useful example is that of singular they/them/their used for unknown or non-binary gender identifications. Singular they/them/their has become increasingly common and accepted in usage, especially for generic or indefinite antecedents, and the pronouns have worked to replace he/him/his, often the traditional choices in ‘gender-neutral’ instances. Recent moves have seen singular they/them/their used in a specific and definite sense. Ackerman (2018) writes:

there is prescriptive stigma of they as being necessarily plural … (although this appears to be changing) … this bias feeds the stigma of singular they as a personal pronoun for people who identify as neither male nor female, but instead as nonbinary. I advocate extreme care in using “unacceptable,” … This terminology puts authors in the position of telling nonbinary … readers … that the terminology which the nonbinary community has converged on is unacceptable

For discussion of singular they in editing and proofreading, see this article from The Economist.

3. Do retain regional and non-standard linguistic differences, rather than replacing them with more widespread or standard forms.

A good example of this is the primarily Scottish term ‘outwith’, frequently replaced in academic and other formal types of writing, despite the fact that, as stated in this Twitter thread, ‘it is the opposite of within in a way that without is not’.

4. Do acknowledge variation and remain flexible – opting for consistency rather than imposing rules.

By means of example, while the Modern Humanities Research Association suggests that the possessive of ‘Jesus’ is ‘Jesus’s’, Scientific Style and Format recommends writing it as ‘Jesus’’. This is not to mention the controversy around the use of the Oxford comma or the use of split infinitives, which also vary according to institutional and personal style. The choices that writers make regarding each of these linguistic features will inevitably communicate social meanings (I, for one, have either used or avoided the Oxford comma to achieve different effects), but writers should be entitled to make those choices themselves.Page of printed text with editing mark-up in red pen5. Do respect and nurture the author’s style, voice and identity.

If the author chooses to begin a sentence with a conjunction or end with a preposition, perhaps they want to take a more casual and informal stance to their topic. If, as I often encourage in academic writing, they choose to use a first-person pronoun rather than referring to themselves as ‘the author’ or ‘the researcher’, perhaps they want to assert themselves and claim more ownership over what they’re writing.

6. Do remember that the role of the editor or proofreader is to manage the author’s intentions and the reader’s expectations.

For example, dialect literature serves to celebrate regional and social differences and is intended for readers with sufficient social and cultural knowledge to recognise its forms and its authenticity. As such, non-standard spelling and grammar are not only preferable but, arguably, essential in this sphere – consider, for example, DH Lawrence’s use of third-person singular, past-tense ‘were’ in The Collier’s Wife (my emphasis):

Wheer’s ‘e hurt this time, lad?
– I dunna know
They on’y towd me it wor bad –
It would be so!

Compare this intentional use of non-standard spelling and grammar, where the message is communicated effectively, to Donald Trump’s ‘covfefe’ blunder, where the non-standard spelling was neither intended by him nor expected of someone in the position of POTUS.

In summary, our writing is an expression of who we are. For some writers, it is what makes their work different that makes it so special, authentic and credible (eg dialect literature). Even in other cases, there are nuances to writing styles that go beyond the textual meanings and that communicate social meanings and crucial aspects of the authors’ or characters’ identities. When we edit out these meanings, we risk editing out their voices altogether.

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.


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Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

By Erin CarrieFour yellow balls with faces drawn in black ink: one sad, one happy, one angry and one uneasy

An introduction to linguistic prejudice

We all have preferences when it comes to language – things we like and dislike. There are accents that we find friendly, catchy words that we pick up, and grammatical forms that we consider to be correct. But that means that there are also accents that we find ugly and unattractive, words that we think are silly or offensive, and grammatical forms that we – often quite adamantly – think are just plain wrong.

This is perfectly normal human behaviour. We have a natural tendency to organise our realities in this way, sorting things according to dualities such as good vs bad, right vs wrong, etc. But it does beg the following questions… What are these evaluations of language actually based on? Who decides what is good and bad, or even right and wrong, when it comes to language? And at what point do these preferences become prejudices?

Sociolinguists like myself would argue that there is nothing inherently good, bad or – dare I say – ugly about any aspect of language. These are social meanings that we have attached to language through convention. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the language that we consider to be correct tends to be the language of the elites within our societies.

Within the vastly variable and changing landscape of the English language, there is a tendency to think that dictionaries, grammars, style guides, etc, based on the linguistic norms of the South East of England have the greatest authority and prestige. More often than not, these norms become the standards that editors and proofreaders live and work by, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But what happens when the work being edited or proofread is written by someone using features of regional or second-language varieties of English? Should their writing conform to the aforementioned norms? At what cost? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the extent to which the profession privileges some voices over others and, in doing so, turns these preferences into prejudices.

The roles of editors and proofreaders

When editing and proofreading, there is inevitably a need to tread the line between (1) suggesting changes that will help the author communicate their message more effectively and (2) ensuring that the style and voice of the author is retained. Editors and proofreaders spend their time working with language and, though they may refer to style guides and implement language ‘rules’ consistently, they are also aware of the fact that language rules are abstract, ambiguous and, quite often, not applicable – there are always exceptions. This makes their roles more difficult to define – they have to use their own judgement and experience when reshaping the author’s message and mediating the relationship between writer and reader.

Every editor and proofreader should reflect on their role and consider the extent to which they are applying rules or asserting preferences, and enforcing so-called ‘standards’ or facilitating diverse voices in communicating their own messages in their own ways. Of course, some degree of conformity to agreed linguistic norms is essential for effective communication but these norms can be redefined and, even, subverted where appropriate. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone’s writing to conform to Standard British English rules when this doesn’t represent the language used by the majority of writers and readers.


Hand turning the pages of a dictionary
Problematic discourse within the editing and proofreading profession

My work on linguistic prejudice to date has focused on speech and, specifically, negative attitudes towards accents and their speakers. One example of the impact of such attitudes is the discrimination experienced by Kasha, shared in this video (Listen to Britain 2017), who moved to the UK from Poland in 1990. The hostile reactions that she has received, based on how she speaks, have made her question her Polish identity and have driven her to seek expert help for reducing and modifying her accent.

Kasha has clearly internalised the social bias against her accent, as she describes her pronunciation as ‘incorrect’ and talks about her accent as a ‘problem’. Disappointingly, her accent reduction coach also engages in this sort of negative discourse, saying that she’ll help Kasha ‘get rid of’ and ‘eradicate’ her accent and will help her to use more ‘elegant’ vowel sounds. Given the differential status of a Standard Southern British English accent and Polish-accented English, it is no surprise that Kasha claims to feel ‘empowered’ after these coaching sessions.

The reason I mention Kasha’s story, although it focuses on spoken rather than written language, is that this is exactly the same type of discourse that we encounter elsewhere and is, in fact, as prevalent within the editing and proofreading profession as in the accent reduction industry. It is not uncommon to come across the following terms in editing and proofreading discourse:

  • ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’
  • ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • ‘good’ and ‘bad’
  • ‘better’ and ‘worse’
  • ‘normal’ and ‘neutral’
  • ‘uncommon’ and ‘unusual’
  • ‘clear’, ‘pristine’ and ‘impeccable’
  • ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘problems’
  • ‘correcting’, ‘fixing’, ‘tidying up’ and ‘resolving’.

All of these evaluations of language are based on social, rather than linguistic, norms. Where linguists merely observe differences, society has a tendency to impose hierarchies whereby (1) some linguistic choices are viewed favourably and others aren’t, (2) some are viewed as unmarked and others as marked, and (3) some are considered to be pure and others to be somewhat tainted. All of this implies to writers that they should strive not just to communicate but to communicate perfectly. But, again, who decides what is perfect when it comes to language use? By enforcing the norms of the powerful elite, aren’t we simply perpetuating a system that favours some voices over others?

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.


Manchester Metropolitan University logo

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.