3 Grammar Trends to Bring Your Writing Into the 21st Century

In late March, Revel sent me to the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) conference in Portland, Oregon, featuring grammar experts covering virtually every editing issue known to the English-speaking world. No, it wasn’t a punishment. Actually, editing combines two of my favorite things: grammar and telling people when they’re wrong.

While I learned a lot in terms of my proofreading position at Revel, I also got to experience the truly unique Portland environment and learn about the massive editing world I was unknowingly a part of. The editing community and its members correct people on a daily basis, so a deep love for being right comes with the territory. In fact, once this blog entry is posted, I fully expect all my editor pals to come out of the woodwork and track down any errors within it … and they’ll probably find something, to be honest.

Back to Portland. ACES keynote speaker and Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper explained that content producers – like copywriters, bloggers, and pretty much anyone who knows how to use a pencil – pay attention to and track organic trends in language, but we also help shape it with the content we put out into the world. For example: we’ll most likely adapt to using Singular They because it serves a clear purpose, but #YOLO isn’t going to stick around forever. I promise.

Here’s a very short list of some hot grammar trends, complete with Portland-themed examples, that you should be aware of as a 21st century contributor to the English language.

(Did that make you feel powerful? It should.)

1. Singular They

I can’t stress it enough: this the most influential and heated editing topic of the millennial generation. Singular They refers to the situational use of ‘they’ and other plural pronouns to describe individual people. I side with the majority when I say that it’s time to embrace the dreaded Singular They. The English-speaking world has used they/them/their in a singular sense as far back as the 14th century. It’s been 700 years; we need to get over it already. In many cases, it eliminates confusion and increases readability – and what’s the point of writing something if your audience can’t read it?

This also comes into play when discussing social consciousness issues. Singular They is now widely used by people who prefer not to use gendered pronouns such as she, he, her, him, etc. You may think it’s unnecessary or cumbersome, but using Singular They to refer to those who wish to use it is already accepted by the professional writing community – and has been for a while – because it’s the socially responsible thing to do (we follow the trends, remember?). Combined with its centuries-long use, there’s no reason not to make the shift completely. Don’t be left behind.

When to use it

When it makes your writing less confusing or when the person you’re writing about uses th- pronouns to describe themselves. See what I did there?

How to use it

Ugh: If a student wishes to backpack his or her way through Portland, he or she can find many shops selling artisan granola and vegan, cruelty-free water bottles for his or her journey.

Better: If a student wishes to backpack their way through Portland, they can find many shops selling artisan granola and vegan, cruelty-free water bottles for their journey.

2. Verb-form Impact

During a session titled “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths,” I watched a grown person throw a temper tantrum when it was suggested that ‘impact’ could in fact be used as a verb. What can I say? We’re a passionate bunch. Impact, for some, is strictly a noun except in cases of impacted wisdom teeth or feces, in which it is used as an adjective. (Excuse me while I get my eyes unstuck from the back of my head.) Then they’ll try to tell you that “affect” or “influence” is a suitable substitute for the verb form. Well I, like many others, simply don’t agree.

Let’s look at the facts. Verb-form Impact has been used as such for a couple hundred years, since 1601 according to Merriam-Webster. It’s also worth mentioning that they have Verb-form Impact listed as the primary definition (most used) and the noun as the secondary. So we’re going to ignore the most common use of the word because some highfalutin grammarians have their panties in a twist? Nope. Sometimes our language changes and that makes us uncomfortable, but just like all other change, there’s usually a reason and it’s usually a good one. All in all, using Verb-form Impact creates a very clear picture for your reader; it carries one heck of a punch that the alternatives simply don’t.

When to use it

Whenever you want. Any grammar sticklers will get over it or die off eventually. Also useful when verb alternatives, such as affect or influence, aren’t as powerful as you want them to be.

How to use it

Ugh: Voodoo Doughnut’s Lemon Chiffon Crueller will greatly affect your life.

Better: Voodoo Doughnut’s Lemon Chiffon Crueller will greatly impact your life.

3. Oxford Comma

Grab your pitchforks. It’s a debate nearly as old as editing itself. The Oxford Comma by definition is the comma that comes before the conjunction in a serial list of three or more items. In other words, it’s the comma before “and” in a list. Because there’s no clearly defined right and wrong, many students are taught that adding the mark is superfluous or unnecessary – and therefore improper. However, the use of the Oxford Comma has increased tenfold in the US over the past 20 years, with many style manuals (Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style, and more) backing it up. Still, the AP Stylebook dictates that Oxford Commas should be used only when it eliminates confusion or improves sentence clarity. While I’m usually a die-hard AP Style junkie, I’ll sell Oxford Commas from my soapbox till I’m blue in the face.

At its core, AP Style is aimed at newspaper and print publication journalists, who often have to save as much column space as possible. So, unless you’re writing for a newspaper (a what?) or magazine, the benefits of using the Oxford Comma severely outweigh the possible negative effects:

  • It’s consistent with conventional grammar practices.
  • It flows with the spoken cadence of sentences better.
  • It can get rid of most ambiguity (see examples below).
  • Not using it can imply a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists.

Come at me with your anti-Oxford justification. I dare you. You can have my Oxford Comma when you pry it from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands.

When to use it

Look, you’re gonna do what you want to do, most likely whichever method you were taught as a kid. But unless you write for a print publication, it’s completely pointless and often quite confusing to omit the Oxford. Just use it.

How to use it

Ugh: Portland was full of diverse people, pockets of culture, and tons of eclectic street art, but what I found the most interesting was the food, my Airbnb hosts and their dog Winston.

(This is ambiguous. Some might think I chose to feast on my hosts and their favorite fluffball.)

Better: Portland was full of diverse people, pockets of culture, and tons of eclectic street art, but what I found the most interesting was the food, my Airbnb hosts, and their dog Winston.

These three trends are only the tip of the iceberg. The English language is evolving constantly. By the time next year’s ACES conference rolls around, I’m sure we’ll be debating and creating new grammar guidelines for the English-speaking world to adapt.

Just kidding. We’ll be complaining about Oxford Commas. Unlike our wonderful language, some things never change.

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