It is an undeniable fact that words have tremendous power. They can uplift and empower people or alienate them and cause harm. If you are writing a piece of work (especially one that is meant to be read by a large number of people), you should consider the language you use and the potential it might have to not accurately portray your intended meaning or, in the worst-case scenario, offend your readers. This is where conscious language comes in.
What is conscious language?
‘Conscious language’ is a term that is used with a variety of meanings across disciplines. Within self-care, for example, it refers to the use of positive, reinforcing language to improve your wellbeing and personal growth.
In the world of writing and everyday use, however, this term is one that focuses more on the receiving end of the language. In the words of Karen Yin, the Conscious Style Guide‘s founder, conscious language ‘is the art of using words effectively in a specific context. Who is your audience? What tone and level of formality do you want? What are you trying to achieve? Some words are more apt than others.’
In essence, conscious language is about being, yes, conscious of the language you are using, how it can be interpreted by readers and if there is a better option for the meaning you intended. If you use language that might be, for example, offensive to some, it should be a deliberate decision (for example, a character in a novel using racist slurs to characterise them as being racist). Language is complicated, however, and words that you believe are inclusive and accepting (or even consider as neutral) can be interpreted in a negative way.
Like I said, the potential for negative reception is always there. For example, the word ‘queer’ in reference to LGBT people was historically a slur, but it’s recently been taken back by many and used in a positive light. Should you use it? Sure, but be conscious of the fact that some people still consider it a slur, and might find it offensive.
This is a very popular example that most people might be aware of, but what about using ‘crazy’? Or ‘daft’? ‘Senile’? ‘Able-bodied’? ‘Blacklist’? ‘Both genders’? ‘Cakewalk’? ‘Chocolate skin’? These are all terms that can easily be found in everyday use and which carry negative connotations towards people from a variety of backgrounds. There is a high possibility that you have used at least one of these terms in the past and not realised its implications, or known about the alternatives that can more accurately convey your meaning.
Instead of ‘daft’, you could say ‘ignorant’. ‘Blocklist’ can easily replace ‘blacklist’. ‘Both genders’ incorrectly implies that there are only two gender identities, so ‘all genders’ would be more accurate. A ‘cakewalk’ was a dancing contest judged by plantation owners, with a cake as a prize, so replacing it with ‘easy’ would erase the slavery connotations.
Why is conscious language important?
So, why should you care about conscious language? Is it policing the way you write? Will you be a victim of ‘cancel culture’ if you don’t Google every word you use to make sure it’s accepted by every individual on the planet?
There is no authority that will come down on your content if you accidentally use vocabulary that has an ulterior meaning. It is important, however, that we educate ourselves and broaden our understanding of the vocabulary we use. Keeping conscious language in mind will ensure that your writing is clear, effective, and inoffensive. Even big corporations are taking steps to ensure that the language they use is inclusive and conscious towards others: streaming platform Twitch has recently removed the ‘blind playthrough’ tag from their website, and Google has guidelines on inclusive documentation.
Conscious language is not about telling you how you should speak or write, but about knowing what kind of language you should be looking out for, so that, if you do use it, you do it (you guessed it) consciously.
- Conscious Style Guide
- National Center on Disability and Journalism
- Autistic Hoya
- Women’s Media Center
- All About Trans
- Asian American Journalists Association
- Writing the Other
- National Association of Black Journalists
- Writing With Colour
- Writing Diversely
Sofia Matias is a professional writer, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with independent authors of Young Adult and genre fiction, publishers and publications. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Learn more about her and her services on her website and connect via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.