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I wrote a passage about slavery, with a target audience of 12-13-year old students. Though for young students, I try to keep conventions highly academic, so students are exposed to real conventions used by historians.

Whenever 'slaves' appears, Grammarly recommends I change it to "enslaved peoples", with this comment:

The term slaves may be considered dehumanizing. Different wording may help to acknowledge the humanity of enslaved people.

This suggestion confuses me, because though "slaves" has a derogatory connotation, and my goal in writing it to make the readers understand their plight was awful, so why replace the derogatory word?

Is enslaved peoples now regarded as the proper term to use in academia?

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  • Obligitory MCU reference: Try using Prisoners with Jobs. On a more serious note, could you discuss the context of the discussion. Is it a historical fiction or a text book. I'm unaware of slaves falling out of fashion and can point to several non-fiction works that are still highly regarded where "slaves" is used. For example, the Ken Burns documentary "The Civil War" uses "slaves" when discussing the matter.
    – hszmv
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:57
  • This is a history textbook, non-fiction.
    – Village
    Apr 24, 2023 at 17:07
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    Reason enough to never use Grammarly.
    – Boba Fit
    Apr 24, 2023 at 18:05
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    "Enslaved peoples" means that several whole peoples (= nations / populations) have been enslaved. I'm not sure that is what you want to say. Maybe you need to use the singular, like your source does?
    – user55858
    Apr 24, 2023 at 21:31
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    "Slave" is not a derogatory term. The claim that it is simply is power games.
    – Mary
    Apr 30, 2023 at 0:54

2 Answers 2

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When you use a noun - slave, prisoner, billionaire -- to refer to a person, you are assigning them an identity, you are saying this is what they are. There are some people these days who feel that this erases the fact that someone actually did this to them. It lets the enslaver disappear almost as though they merely harvested a resource. By saying "enslaved people" you re-emphasize that these were in fact people and that someone chose to enslave them. Not to turn them into slaves, to somehow change their identity, but to do something to them that took away the freedoms and rights they should have been entitled to.

That's why the phrasing is gaining popularity. Are you wrong to continue to use the word slaves? No. It's not like "the n word" or "the r word" or other words we no longer say. Should you take a moment and think about the enslavers in the story you are telling and what they did? Probably, yes.

Another note: dehumanizing and derogatory are different. Both "short" and "stupid" can be derogatory, but when you call someone those adjectives, we all agree they are still people. Some words leave a faint nuance that the target you identify with them is somehow not quite a person, that they have a different, lesser identity. Like companies that call their people "resources" or "headcount" as fungible and interchangeable things whose humanity doesn't matter to the company, or generals who call dead soldiers "losses". I am not sure something as lampshaded as "include the word person or people so everyone remembers they were people" is the only way to solve this, but that's what Grammarly is saying to you.

You won't be wrong to use the word slaves, especially for younger readers (less syllables.) But it doesn't hurt to think about who and what they were before someone enslaved them, and consider adjusting your words a little.

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    That's the purported motive. In fact, "enslaved person" tends to distract from the slave entirely by drawing attention to the writer.
    – Mary
    Apr 25, 2023 at 1:02
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I would argue you're better off using the word "slaves" in most instances. While calling them "enslaved persons" does emphasize the fact that they were enslaved by someone ELSE the simple fact is that by emphasizing that "else" you're also taking emphasis away from the enslaved person. That they are simply a thing-that-was-enslaved and that the reader should always be thinking about the one who enslaved them instead of focusing purely on the slave. Additionally in your case, writing for younger readers, you're adding complication to the text. You presumably will be guiding them through discussion of the paper, and therefor can hammer home the fact that these people are more than "just" slaves. So the theoretical need to reinforce that in the text continuously seems superfluous in this instance. Maybe use "enslaved persons" once or twice, or when referring to an entire group/society, but no need to replace all or even most of the instances of "slave" in your text.

In academia there is a movement towards "enslaved persons" but there is plenty of recent scholarly work that still uses "slaves" or "slave" either in conjunction with or to the exclusion of "enslaved persons."

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