Language changes & grammar evolves: Why it’s okay to not listen to your English teacher sometimes

“But my Grade 8 English teacher taught me that. Why would she do that if it weren’t true?” That question came from a client who was not accustomed to being edited. The problem was, we were working on a press release about software that integrated into existing databases. Somehow I don’t think that’s what his teacher was preparing him for decades ago.

Many people are surprised that rules change for writing and editing (such as starting a sentence with “but” or “and”). But language changes as our society does. And you need to stay current, to be able to reach your audience in ways they understand. Rules are intended to help, not hinder, communication. When they get in the way, or no longer reflect current usage, they change.

A new development I’m excited about is the lowercase I on “internet.” Maybe you’ve been writing it that way for a while now, but to me it shows the progress we made since it was first made public as the World Wide Web back in the 1980s.

Another is the use of the singular “they.” That is, using a plural word, “they,” to refer to one person of either gender, or if the gender is not identified. We hear it in speech all the time – it’s too cumbersome to say, “He or she” constantly, so we’ve naturally shortened it to “They.” It’s not mandatory in written works, but it certainly isn’t wrong.

The singular “they” falls into the everything old is new again category. It was proper English until the Victorian era, when grammarians decided “he” should be the standard, the norm. As this article by Editors Canada President Gael Spivak says, that decision is being re-examined:

  • The American Dialect Society declared the singular “they” its Word of the Year in 2015

  • As of May 2017, the Associated Press allows “they” as a singular pronoun when a writer is referring to people who don’t use gendered pronouns

  • The new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style will also allow it in some cases

Associated Press and Chicago tend to be more conservative than most writers and editors. Shakespeare used the singular “they.” Your teacher can hardly argue with that.

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