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What Role Can Editors Play in the Conscious Language Debate?

Illustration of four people chatting around two laptops with blank speech bubbles and a light bulb representing ideas in the air around them.
Illustration of four people chatting around two laptops with blank speech bubbles and a light bulb representing ideas in the air around them.
Copyright: alisarut

Conscious language (also known as inclusive language) is a topic that is gaining a lot of attention on a global scale. Recently, there has been some heated debate over some publishers’ decisions to edit the works of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie to align with current language standards. These debates highlight the divide that exists in public opinion on the use and application of conscious language. But how do editors factor into this debate?

As editors, it is important to have a clear understanding of what conscious language is and its purpose. As our society focuses more and more on diversity, inclusion and recognizing and addressing unconscious bias, editors are in a unique position to champion these changes through language. After all, it is language that reflects our collective values, leaves our mark on history and informs our thoughts and behaviours.

Conscious language: what it is … and isn’t

Too often, conscious language is mistaken for an attempt to avoid offending anyone. However, the real purpose of conscious language is to recognize that there are words and terms ingrained in our vocabulary that have been weaponized against and used to dehumanize entire populations. 

Conscious language invites us to choose language that includes and respects the lived experiences of all people and prioritizes communities that continue to face marginalization. Conscious language requires us to acknowledge the harm that words have caused — and continue to cause — and forge a better way forward.

The effects of conscious language

Language is always evolving. It is constantly being recreated and redefined by us. Editors are responsible for upholding clear and respectful language and ensuring this standard is applied to any materials that are being edited. It is common for editors to receive pushback when bringing up concerns pertaining to conscious language. However, applying current language standards greatly benefits the writer. It increases potential readership, protects the writer from backlash and helps their work stand up to the test of time.

As our society progresses towards equality and inclusion, materials containing outdated and harmful language will be consumed less and less. This is likely to have been the main motivation behind recent decisions to revise the works of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. Publishers sought to increase readership by making these works more appealing to a broader audience, and conscious language was the solution.

This isn’t a new trend for publishers. The works of both Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie have undergone such edits in the past with the alteration of Dahl’s depiction of the Oompa Loompas in the post-1973 printings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and Christie’s twice-changed title of And Then There Were None. These changes provided more profit opportunities for these works and neither resulted in the breakdown of classic literature.

Editors as agents of change

There are varying opinions about the merits of bringing classic works up to new language standards, and the topic is being constantly debated. There are many new and wonderful books being written and published that respect evolving language standards. But does that mean that we should exclude readers who do not want to consume dehumanizing and harmful language from experiencing the classics? Who are books for if not for the readers? Shouldn’t everyone who wants to enjoy Roald Dahl’s wild imagination and Agatha Christie’s mastery of the detective genre be able to do so without being forced to accept or ignore language that has caused real-world harm? 

As editors, we are asked to put ourselves in readers’ shoes when we are performing any type of edit. Our job is to ensure that the content we are editing serves and advocates for the readers. Are we doing that when we allow dehumanizing language to remain for the sake of preservation? Editors are in a unique position to help progress our language and advocate for change in the literary world. If we can help expose readers to classics without imposing biased and harmful language on them, shouldn’t we embrace that opportunity? 

Communication and language have been used to propagate harm. Words have been created to exclude and “other” people whose lived experiences do not align with what society deemed the “norm.” Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. Conscious language can help address and rectify the harmful, real-world effects that language has caused and provide an opportunity to help reduce that harm in the future. It can help us create a more inclusive and caring society. It is exciting to think that editors are on the front lines of this change, one word at a time. 

Learn more

Conscious language resources for editors can be found at Conscious Style Guide and Crystal Shelley’s Conscious Language Toolkit

There are also a variety of conscious language resources, sessions and webinars available through Editors Canada: 


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5 Comments on “What Role Can Editors Play in the Conscious Language Debate?”

  • I think that editors should play a different and opposite role than you suggest. Instead of laundering Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie — and, about a decade ago, Mark Twain — editors and others involved in creative work should seize this teachable moment. Leave the texts as they are but provide context to show that a term that is considered offensive and dehumanizing now was not considered to be so at the time of publication. Parents can play the same role with their children. For me, there’s also the issue of the disrespect that is shown to the author by actually changing or deleting the words they used. How can this be a good thing? Literary scholars spend much effort trying to establish the precise text of a work exactly as the author intended it. These initiatives to make them more palatable for the modern reader are counter to that.

    The other point of course is that what is offensive to you may not be offensive to me. Where does the clean-up stop? And who could possibly objectively decide that? Ultimately, efforts such as the sanitizing of Dahl and Christie are frankly on the polite edge of censorship. If authors who have _unintentionally_ given offense are censored, then modern writers and satirists and comedians who actually _try_ to give offense are in a hopeless situation. Literature will suffer because of it and so will our culture generally.

    • Jane Lebow


      I agree completely. It’s similar to bowdlerizing (think about how that worked out), and times change. Your point about teachable moments is apt and helpful, so long as the teacher doesn’t inject too much personal content.

  • Lawrence


    What a great post about such an important topic. I know this is a subject of considerable debate in editor circles, but it would be such a treat to be able to read some of my favourite books without having to stop and put my “it’s just the way it was back then” blinders on every few chapters.

    People who talk about conscious language as if it’s about not giving offense drastically downplay the harm language does, not just to individual readers but to the idea of what’s acceptable in society as a whole. We’re informed by what we consume. It’s incredible to me that there are still people out there that don’t understand that.

    • I totally agree that language has power. That’s why I love writing and editing so much. We are indeed informed by what we consume, but if we inform _ourselves_ before we consume, then we can make a choice about whether to consume it at all, or to consume it with the knowledge we have discovered about its possible harm.

      I bristle a bit at things such as “what’s acceptable in society as a whole.” Again, who decides? And who could possible hold back the onslaught of offense and harm that bad actors will publish no matter what guidelines are in place and no matter which selective books are bowdlerized. For me, being informed is the key. I don’t consume what’s out there without knowing what its source is. My natural stance is skepticism.

    • Laura Bontje


      “We’re informed by what we consume.” That’s a great point, Lawrence. Without nuanced discussion (which won’t be available for every text in every situation for every reader), it’s easy to cross the line from “recording what was once commonplace” to “inadvertently normalizing continued use.”

      Words can harm, and editors can help authors avoid that.

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