Evolving Language: What to Keep and What to Leave Behind

A language shifts and evolves like a landscape shaped by wind and water. Sometimes the changes strike quickly, like a new term or style change ruling that hits both writing professionals and general language users like a landslide, instantaneously transforming the landscape. Sometimes they take longer to acclimate, like the gradual eradication of ethnic slurs that vanish from the landscape like a shifting riverbed.

Yet some rules and usages stick around, apparently as immutable as mountains, but if anything is true about languages it’s that nothing about them is permanent. Below are a grammar rule I hope stays standing, a crumbled mountain of an old rule I don’t miss, and a new forest I’d like to see grow.

Let It Stay: the Oxford comma. My writing friends have many and sundry strong opinions, but the Oxford comma, whether for or against, is the hill they’ll die on. I am strongly for, if for no other reason than to avoid being these writers and editors who caused some hilarious confusion by not deploying that little extra comma.

Let It Fall: double spacing after a period. This is a holdover from the days of typewriters, when every letter took up the same amount of space and made it hard to tell where sentences began and ended. I was still instructed to use the double space even though I learned to type on a computer keyboard (shoutout to Mavis Beacon!), and modern, proportional fonts help our eyes pick out sentence breaks more easily. Adding the extra space was a hard habit for me to break, but I did, mostly because publications nowadays specifically ask writers to only use one space after a period. As of April 2020, even Microsoft Word now flags double spaces after periods as a grammatical error…but given Word’s, uh, less than reliable grammar-checking, maybe that’s not a great argument.

Let It Grow: the singular “they.” It’s about time the English language got a gender-neutral singular pronoun, for so many reasons, and as of 2019, it’s safe to safe to say we have one. Major style guides ranging from the MLA to the APA to the Associated Press have all given their blessing to the singular “they” to some extent. With “they” still acting as a plural pronoun, there’s bound to be confusion as the singular usage gains popularity, but like so many changes across the history of English, normalizing it (and the people who use it) can only serve to make our language more accessible, more accommodating, and easier to use.

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