Style and substance: The language you use and the impact it has

6 Aug 2019

Image: © Sergey Nivens/

Inclusive science and technology need the right language to match, writes Elaine Burke.

Silicon Republic recently underwent its biggest style guide review in three years. We made some significant changes of the variety only nit-picking editors will appreciate (such as the decision to no longer italicise titles of works) and had lengthy discussions on the use and misuse of hyphens. For any written-word obsessive, it was a challenging and rewarding experience.

What I’m most proud of are the additions and amendments we have made to ensure the language we use on is inclusive.

Two weeks ago, The Atlantic critiqued the outdated language of space travel, which acknowledges that while NASA turned away from the use of ‘manned’ and ‘unmanned’ to describe missions with human occupants some time ago, the media was lagging behind in its language use. Silicon Republic was not. An editorial guidance was issued to use ‘crewed’ and ‘uncrewed’ a number of years ago and an updated note on gender-based terms such as these has been included in the latest style guide.

Language takes time to evolve, so I understand completely why, in the midst of the recent Apollo 11 50th anniversary celebrations, we saw the incorrect terms crop up over and over again. Unsurprising as it was, I still cringed at the repeated references to the manned mission in a manmade spacecraft to put man on the moon. One small step for man, one giant exclusion of half of humankind.

It’s hard to imagine young girls and women seeing themselves represented in this scientific achievement when the very messaging around it occludes people like them from view. It’s not even as if the space programmes of the ’60s and ’70s were driven solely by men. Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson and JoAnn Morgan all played their critical roles in NASA’s Apollo missions, and the Soviet Union was first to get a woman into space, and a woman aboard a space station and on a spacewalk (Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya, respectively).

Careful consideration

The significance of language use also came up when The Guardian announced a shift in its language around the climate crisis. Yes, that’s what we’re calling it, too. Or climate emergency caused by global heating, not a gentle warming into an innocuous state of change. Those who disagree are, plainly, climate science deniers.

This and the ‘crewed’ change were no-brainers. Others required more careful consideration. We opted to default to the acronym LGBTQ for this broad and diverse community, moving on from LGBT.

These few letters represent a lot of varying identities, and admittedly the acronym has its limitations. However, after much discussion, we agreed that LGBTQ represents more than a simple acronym and this term was the widest-reaching in scope while still being clear and uncomplicated for readers.

That’s the line we have to toe in communicating our message. The receiver must be able to comprehend with ease, and sometimes that requires a certain amount of compromise.

In our guidance for terms describing grouped identities, we deferred as much as possible to these groups themselves to define the language they deem acceptable. Per, we prefer to say ‘autistic people’ to ‘people with autism’, for example, and we are always welcoming to notes from those these terms represent.

Here’s to you, Shelly

This is not just an ode to the importance of our words and how we use them, but a note of appreciation to the Silicon Republic sub-editor who helped us on this journey and is now about to set off on a new journey of her own. Shelly Madden’s imprint is all over the new, improved Silicon Republic style guide and her help in poring over the important details was indispensable.

Our new editorial team at Silicon Republic is now fully in place, and the torch of sub-editor has been passed to the hugely capable Sarah Harford. It is with immense pride that I heard our new team members praise the style guide and its attention to inclusion. As language evolves, we hope we can set a standard for others to follow.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.