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APA Citation & Formatting : Bias-Free Language

Attention Students!

This guide is a starting point only. For full details on correctly citing resources and creating references, please consult the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th ed. (2020).

It is important to remember that Library staff do not teach APA, and will not evaluate or correct work. If you need help with APA Style, contact your instructor, or contact the Student Success Hub to request a meeting with a peer tutor or the Writing Clinic.

What is bias-free language? (5.1) 
APA Style requires all writers, including students, to use language that is free of bias. Bias-free language is language that is sensitive to and respectful of differences in people's age, disability, gender, sexual identity and orientation, racial and ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, intersectionality, and other categories. Writers must avoid perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes in their writing. It takes time and practice to become skilled at identifying and eliminating bias in our writing.

Best Practices (5.1-5.2)

  • Describe only relevant characteristics. Include only what is relevant to the topic of the assignment.
  • Acknowledge relevant differences that do exist. Some differences may be relevant to the topic of the assignment. Use assignment rubrics, class work, critical thinking skills, and feedback from instructors to determine what is relevant and should be included in an assignment.
  • Be appropriately specific. Choose and include terms that will improve the reader’s ability to understand the research. Appropriate terms will depend on the research being done and on the assignment.
  • Be sensitive to labels. Respect the language people use to describe themselves; call people what they call themselves. It is important to remember that language changes over time, and that individuals within groups sometimes disagree about the language they use. Determine what is appropriate for your assignment, particularly when these designations are debated within groups. For example, some individuals may use slurs or stigmatizing language to refer to themselves; use extreme caution before repeating this language.  
  • Acknowledge people's humanity. Use caution and sensitivity when choosing labels, and ensure that the individuality and humanity of people are respected. Avoid using adjectives as nouns to label people (e.g.: "the poor") or labels that equate people with their condition (e.g.: "drug users"). Instead, use adjectival forms (e.g.: "older adults") or nouns with descriptive phrases (e.g.: "people living in poverty").
  • Avoid false hierarchies. If it is necessary to compare groups, do so with care. Bias occurs when a writer uses one group, often their own group, as the standard against which others are judged. For example, using the word “normal” to describe a person or group may suggest to the reader that another person or group is "abnormal", which stigmatizes individuals with differences. APA Style emphasizes using parallel designations for groups, especially when presenting racial and ethnic identity information. When referring to multiple groups, consider the order in which they are presented.
  • Do not put groups in order of social dominance by default. Instead, consider options such as alphabetical order or sample size order. Be sure to list groups in the same order consistently throughout an assignment.

Examples by Topic 
The following tabs have examples of specific language for some of the topics covered in the APA Style bias-free language guidelines. Remember, the proper choice will depend on the assignment or research being done. When in doubt, ask your instructor or consult chapter five of the Publication Manual.

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Age (5.3)

  • Use exact ages or age ranges (e.g.: 15–18 years old, 65–80 years old) instead of broad categories (e.g.: under 18 years old or over 65 years old).
  • To describe a person of any age, use "person" or "individual".
  • Avoid using "males" and "females" as nouns. Instead, use “men” and “women” or other age- and gender-appropriate words, such as "boys" or "girls". Using "males" and "females" is appropriate when groups include individuals with a broad age range. For example, "males" can be used to describe a group that includes both boys and men.
  • When writing about people under the age of 12, appropriate terms include "infant", for very young children, "child", "children", "boy", "girl", "transgender boy/ girl", "nonbinary child", and so on.
  • When writing about people aged 13 to 17, appropriate terms include "adolescent", "young person", "youth", "female/ male adolescent", and so on.
  • When writing about people aged 18 or older, appropriate terms include "adult", "woman", "man", "transgender woman/ man", and so on.
  • When writing about older adults, appropriate terms include "older persons", "older people", "older adults", "persons 65 years old or older", and so on.

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Gender & Gender Identity (5.5)
Language around gender and gender identity can be complex and it is evolving and changing. A glossary of some of the current language appears at the bottom of this page. If you have questions about the language of gender and gender identity, contact the Library or speak with your instructor.

  • It is important to know the differences between sex, gender, and gender identity. See page 138 of the Publication Manual for more information. For quick definitions, check the glossary below.
  • When writing about gender identity, use descriptors with modifiers (e.g.: cisgender women, transgender women) instead of descriptors without modifiers (e.g.: women) or general non-gendered terms (e.g.: people, individuals).
  • Provide information about gender identities of subjects when relevant, rather than assuming that someone is cisgender or heterosexual.
  • Use gender identity labels that are in accordance with the stated identities of the people being described. Be sure to clearly define how these identity labels are being used within the assignment or paper.
  • Refer to all people, including transgender people, by the name they use to refer to themselves, which may be different from their legal name or the name on their birth certificate, keeping in mind provisions for respecting confidentiality.
  • Use specific nouns to identify people or groups of people (e.g.: women, men, transgender men, trans men, transgender women, trans women, cisgender women, cisgender men, gender-fluid people).
  • Use “male” and “female” as adjectives (e.g.: a male participant) when appropriate and relevant.
  • Use “male” and “female” as nouns only when the age range is broad or ambiguous, or if t is necessary to identify a transgender person's sex assignment at birth (e.g.: “person assigned female at birth”). Otherwise, avoid using “male” and “female” as nouns.
  • Use the specific nouns for people of different ages (e.g.: women).
  • To refer to all human beings, use terms like “individuals,” “people,” or “persons”. Avoid terms like “man” or “mankind” when referring to all human beings. 
  • Avoid endings like “man” in occupational titles (e.g.: use “firefighter” instead of “fireman”).
  • Do not refer to the pronouns that transgender and gender-nonconforming people use as “preferred pronouns”. Instead, use “identified pronouns,” “self-identified pronouns,” or simply “pronouns”.
  • When writing about an individual whose pronouns are known, use that person's identified pronouns.
  • When writing about an individual whose pronouns are not known, use the singular “they”, “them,” “theirs,”, etc. Similarly, use the singular "they" when writing about a generic or hypothetical person when their gender identity is irrelevant within the context of the paper or assignment.
  •  Avoid referring to one sex or gender as the “opposite sex” or “opposite gender”; appropriate wording may be “another sex” or “another gender.”

Glossary

Cisgender
Individuals whose sex assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity.

Gender
The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person's biological sex. Gender is a social construct and a social identity, and it describes a person's psychological sense of their gender. Gender can be binary, e.g.: a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female. Gender can also be nonbinary gender, e.g.:genderqueer, gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, agender, gender-fluid.

Sex
Biological sex assignment. The term “sex” is used when discussing biological sex assignment, e.g., sex assigned at birth.

Transgender
An adjective used to refer to persons whose gender identity, expression, and/or role does not conform to what is culturally associated with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender people may hold binary or non-binary gender identities. (See Gender)

Two-Spirit
A gender identity specific to Indigenous communities.

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Disability (5.4)
The World Health Organization (2011) describes disability as a broad term that is defined in both legal and scientific ways, and it includes physical, psychological, intellectual, and socioemotional conditions. 

  • Use the specific name of the condition (e.g.: Alzheimer's disease) instead of categories of conditions (e.g.: types of dementia).
  • When making a general reference, "person first" language is preferred (e.g.: "people with disabilities" instead of "disabled people").
  • Pay close attention to person-first language and identity-first language, and use the language that a person uses to describe themselves, provided it is appropriate. Some groups (e.g.: the Deaf) have chosen to use a capitalized label to identify and promote a sense of unity and community; use the label that the community uses, even when that label is adjectival, but be careful to confirm that the person being written about uses that label. Using the example above, not everyone who has hearing loss identifies as Deaf. Be aware that some groups may prefer identity-first language (e.g.: "Autistic", or "an Autistic person" rather than "a person with Autism"). Always confirm that the correct language is used.
  • Avoid pictorial metaphors or negative terms that imply restriction (e.g.: "wheelchair bound" or "confined to a wheelchair"). Use the term "wheelchair user" instead.
  • Avoid negative labels (e.g.: "AIDS victim", or "brain damaged"). Use person-first language, e.g: "person with AIDS" or "person with a traumatic brain injury" instead.
  • Avoid terms that can be regarded as slurs (e.g., "cripple", "invalid", "alcoholic", "meth addict"). Use person first language, e.g.: "person with a physical disability", "person with a mental illness", "person with alcohol use disorder", or "person with substance use disorder" instead, or be more specific (e.g.: "person with schizophrenia").
  • Do not use labels such as "high functioning" or "low functioning". 

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Race & Ethnicity (5.7)
According to the APA Style Blog, race refers to physical differences that groups and cultures consider socially significant. Race is a social construct that is not universal. Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs. 

  • It is very important to be clear whether you are referring to a racial group or to an ethnic group. Because race is a social construct that is not universal, writers must be careful not to impose racial labels on ethnic groups.
  • Whenever possible, use the terms that people use to refer to themselves, and be sure that the racial and ethnic categories being used are as clear and specific as possible. 
  • When writing about racial or ethnic groups, use the nation or region of origin (e.g.: Chinese Canadians) instead of a generalized origin (e.g., Asian Canadians). 
  • Racial and ethnic groups are proper nouns and are capitalized. For example, use "Black" and "White" instead of "black" and "white".
  • It is not appropriate to  use colors to refer to other human groups. It is considered derogatory. To refer to non-White racial and ethnic groups collectively, use terms such as "people of colour" or "underrepresented groups" rather than "minorities".

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing AboutSexual Orientation (5.8)
Below are some best practices for writing about sexual orientation:

  • When writing about sexual orientation, use the names of people's orientations (e.g.: lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, heterosexual people) instead of broad group labels (e.g.: using "gay" as an umbrella terms for all LGBTQ2+ people.) Avoid the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality.”
  • The terms “straight” and “heterosexual” are both acceptable to use when referring to people who are attracted to individuals of another gender.
  • Use the umbrella term "sexual and gender minorities" to refer to multiple sexual and/ or gender minority groups, or when writing about sexual orientation and gender diversity in general.
  • Abbreviations such as LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, LGBTQIA, and LGBTQIA+ maybe used to refer to multiple groups. “LGBT” is considered outdated, but there is no consensus about which abbreviation including or beyond LGBTQ to use. Whe using abbreviations, make sure that it is defined and that it accurately reflects the people being written about.
  • When using specific terms for orientations, define them if there is any ambiguity, e.g.: "gay" can be interpreted broadly, to include all genders, or more narrowly to include only men. Either define terms, or qualify them, e.g.: "gay men" instead of "gay".

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Socioeconomic Status (5.9)
According to the APA Style Blog, socioeconomic status (SES) includes not only income but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. SES includes quality of life attributes and opportunities afforded to people within society.

  • When writing about socioeconomic status, use income ranges or specific designations (e.g.: $15,000 to $20,000, or below the federal poverty threshold) instead of general labels (e.g.: low income).
  • Avoid using broad, pejorative, and generalizing terms such as “the homeless,” “inner-city,” “ghetto,” “the projects,” “poverty stricken,” and “welfare reliant.” Instead, use specific, person-first language, e.g.: "a person experiencing homelessness" instead of "a homeless person".
  • APA Style recommends including racial and/ or ethnic descriptors within SES categories because historically, terms like “low-income” and “poor” have historically served as implicit descriptors for racial and/or ethnic minority people.
  • Avoid deficit-based language; focus language on what people have rather than what they lack, and use more sensitive and specific descriptors. Alternatively, adopt a strengths-based perspective, e.g.: "people who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent" , or "people who have a grade school education", instead of "poorly educated" or "high school dropout".
  • When describing a person's legal status, use person-first language, e.g.: "people/ individuals who are undocumented", instead of "Illegal immigrants" or "illegal aliens".
  • Avoid language that focuses on blaming a person or group for their SES. 

Please Note! This is only a brief overview. Please consult the Publication Manual for more information.

Best Practices for Writing About Intersectionality (5.10)
When writing about personal characteristics, it is important to be sensitive to intersectionality. According to the APA Style Blog, intersectionality refers to the way in which individuals are shaped by and identify with a vast array of cultural, structural, sociobiological, economic, and social contexts. It is a paradigm - a set of ideas - that addresses the multiple dimensions of identity and social systems as they intersect with one another and relate to inequality. These include racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and other variables. People are unique, and can be located within a range of social groups, and multiple identities are possible. 

  •  Identify individuals' relevant characteristics and group memberships, and describe how their characteristics and group memberships intersect in ways that are relevant to the assignment or paper.
  • Report data for each group using specific terms as described on the other pages in this section of the guide. This helps the reader to understand how many groups there are that are composed of individuals with the same characteristics.
    • APA Style provides the following example: “20 participants were African American women, 15 participants were European American women, 23 participants were African American men, and 18 participants were European American men (all participants were cisgender)” rather than “35 participants were women and 41 were men; 43 were African American and 33 were European American.”

Please Note!

This guide is based on the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th ed. (2020). Library staff have reviewed the information in this guide, and to the best of our knowledge, it is accurate. However, mistakes do occur. Students bear sole responsibility for ensuring that their citations are correct, and that their assignments meet the criteria laid out by their instructor. Students are encouraged to contact Peer Tutoring or the Writing Clinic for assistance.