Conscious Language 101

What is conscious language?

Simply put, it is understanding that language is not neutral, and choosing to use it intentionally in a way that does not cause harm.

Alex Kapitan of Radical Copyeditor has a helpful framework for seeing language on a spectrum from harmful to healing. Alex’s framework acknowledges that language, at its best, can create and inspire and restore. At its worst, it can be violent, hateful, and actively harmful.

And in between these things is where most of us fall — not trying to use language in a way that can have a damaging impact, but sometimes doing so because we just don’t know better. That’s where conscious language comes in. Conscious language helps us to understand the unintended effects that our words have, and to ensure that our impact matches our intentions.

The English language is awash in words and idioms that are rooted and invested in marginalization, racism, sexism, ableism, and more. Lots of these expressions have been ingrained in us so deeply that we don’t even notice their harm, especially if we are not a part of the community that they are harmful to. But we don’t have to accept that, or default to those old ways of speaking/writing.

Those of us who are working to manifest a better, more just world have a responsibility to use language in ways that describe the world we are working to create, rather than unconsciously perpetuating bias and prejudice.”

Alex Kapitan, Radical Copyeditor

Intentional use of language is already a major part of writing craft. Conscious language is simply an element of this, one that all writers can benefit from. It is important to note that the purpose of conscious language is not to limit. Rather, it is a deliberate decision to craft sentences that deliver the impact you desire — and only the impact you desire.

The most important part of conscious language is the conscious part. Good writers consciously use disagreeable language to strike a dissonant tone. The goal is not to be nice, inoffensive, or politically correct; even language intended to be inclusive and considerate might offend. If you’re interested in using language consciously, then clarify your intentions and evoke and provoke skillfully.”

Karen Yin, founder, Conscious Style Guide

What Conscious Language is Not

Conscious language is not the same thing as authenticity reading (also known as sensitivity reading). Authenticity reading is a service that authors should seek out if they are writing about characters, events, experiences, identities, or cultures outside of their own lived experience. Authenticity readers are members of the communities that are being written about and will provide an assessment of the representation in the manuscript. This is an invaluable service, and is separate from a general conscious language assessment.

Resources

Happily, there are lots and lots resources available for anyone wanting to be more conscious about their use of language. Whether you are a writer, a critical reader, or a person who simply wants to work towards positive transformation in the world, conscious language is a necessary tool in your toolkit.

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