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Grammar and Our Changing Society

by | Sep 14, 2020

By Arlene Miller

I’m pleased to welcome Arlene Miller, The Grammar Diva, back to The Book Designer. You may remember Arlene from her previous guest post, Copyediting: It Doesn’t End With Your Manuscript. If you’ve been scratching your head about the proper use of gender-nonspecific pronouns, references to race and stereotypes among other things, this guest post should be helpful.

Since 2010 I have written and published ten grammar books. Since 2014 I have written a grammar blog, posting every week. I have taught English, copyedited, and written technical manuals. Suffice it to say that grammar is near and dear to my heart.

What Is Grammar?

What exactly is grammar? Grammar consists of words (morphology) and how we put them into sentences (syntax). Most people also put punctuation into the grammar category.

There are two schools of grammar thought:

  1. Prescriptivism – If you are a prescriptivist, you believe that the rules are the rules and that is pretty much it. Occasionally, with a good reason, you will break a rule. Note, however, that we have many different style guides that sometimes disagree. And, English is the only major language that does not have an association that presides over the language and makes the rules.
  2. Descriptivism – If you are a descriptivist, you believe that language is alive and ever changing – and that the way people speak and write actually creates the rules.

How Has Grammar Changed? Or Has It?

Think about how grammar has changed, let’s say, since the days of Shakespeare. Has it really? What changes most is actually vocabulary. Obviously, language has changed a great deal since Shakespeare wrote his plays. Technology and society change our vocabulary constantly. Thousands of new words are added to the dictionary every year. Learning the ins and outs, such as when to use nor, can be tricky even for native speakers. In fact, the dictionary is updated on a regular basis. Words are added, and some are taken out. Who heard of “mansplaining” a few years ago?

However, syntax has not really changed. Nor has punctuation. We still put our sentences together with same way as always. Verbs have subjects and objects, prepositional phrases perform the same functions they always have, tenses haven’t changed, and commas go in the same places they went a century ago. And the war over the Oxford comma still rages on.

It is societal change that prompts much of the evolution of our language, and copyeditors are now the guardians of making sure correct (and politically correct) language is used.

The Singular They – Controversy of Our Time

In 2019 the Merriam Webster people said that the singular they is acceptable. The singular they is the “other” controversy (in addition to the Oxford comma, pro or con). What is the singular they?

They is obviously a plural pronoun. It refers to more than one person. It is the third-person plural personal pronoun. Its singular form is he, she, or it. He is male, she is female, and it is a thing (or animal, unless of course, it is your pet.)

So, what is the problem? The problem is that there is no gender-nonspecific pronoun in the English language. But there are people who don’t identify with either he or she.

Everyone needs to bring ______ passport to the airport.

Everyone (everybody, someone, somebody, etc.) might sound plural, but it is singular. But we might not know if the group is entirely male, entirely female, or mixed. Obviously, there are easy workarounds to avoid the issue:

Everyone needs to bring a passport to the airport.
All travelers need to bring their passports to the airport.

But let’s say you were in a situation where you wanted to use the singular pronoun. The old ways were:

Everyone needs to bring his or her passport to the airport.
Everyone needs to bring his/her passport to the airport.
Everyone needs to bring his passport to the airport. (His covering also for her– no longer acceptable)
The awful compromise of alternating between the two in a passage of writing.

Many people have always used the singular they because they didn’t know the difference:

Everyone needs to bring their passport to the airport.

Many prescriptivists still don’t like this. I don’t love it, but I will use it. Well, I will generally just rewrite to avoid it. And of course there have been many attempts at birthing a new word that covers all genders and is singular, but I have seen nothing final on that one yet.

Other Societal Grammar Issues

Most people now go along with the singular they if it is awkward or difficult to rewrite. But writers and editors have to be very careful with other words as well. Language is how we communicate, and we don’t want to insult. We don’t want to be misogynist or racist in our writing. We don’t want to talk down to readers. Writers and editors need to consider the narrator, and in cases of creative writing, dialog as well. How far can we go in dialog?

I don’t have the answers to most of these questions. There really aren’t any. But writers and editors need to be mindful of them.

Black and White

When talking about race, white is always lowercase. The Chicago Manual of Style says that black should also be lowercase. However, some styles guides say capitalizing Black is fine. However, capitalizing white connotes white supremacy, so never capitalize white when it refers to race. And do you want to use Black or African American? Are they always synonymous?

Big Words

Some writers like to use big words to make their readers think they are smart (or erudite). Editors generally change high-falutin words and long, tangled sentences into simpler writing.


We no longer use words like chairman, postman, fireman, policeman, or even actress. We use chairperson, postal worker or letter carrier, fire fighter, police officer, and often actor for either gender of thespian. And words like housewife are generally derogatory these days as well; it is no longer the 50s.

Shades of Meaning

Aggressive and assertive are not the same. One has a positive connotation and the other, negative. We need to make sure we say exactly what we mean. There is a difference among laid off, downsized, fired, and sacked.


I was talking to some writer friends, and they brought up the point of stereotypes in developing characters. Make sure not all your good guys are of a certain race or religion or geographic area or even gender or age. And watch you don’t give certain groups stereotypical characteristics. Stereotypes still exist in our society.

Narration and Dialog

I write grammar books, so I use standard English, no dialog, no problem. But if you write (or edit) creative nonfiction or fiction, you need to consider the narrator’s voice and dialect, as well as that of the characters.

  • Is Ebonics racist?
  • Can you even write dialect accurately?
  • Do you want to deal with regional vernacular?
  • Do you want to indicate the educational level of a character (or narrator) by how they speak?
  • Can you be consistent within a character’s dialog?

I have no answers to these questions, but they are significant issues in writing.

Final Thoughts

To close, I did have an issue with political correctness in one of my books: my first grammar workbook. I gave it to several beta readers. I was really surprised when one of them (a writer) criticized my examples, in which this writer thought I used names that were “too European.” Definitely something to consider.

Finally, should books be updated to reflect current social mores? Since I write grammar books, I obviously have to update when something big changes, like the acceptance of the singular they. I personally don’t think novels and creative nonfiction should be updated, in most cases, since they reflect the time in which they are written. You may disagree. There are certainly arguments on both sides.

Words are much of what we have to communicate with, so we need to make sure we are using them in the best way we can.

Arlene Miller headshotx125Arlene Miller, also known as The Grammar Diva, is a copyeditor and bestselling Amazon author of ten grammar books, including The Best Little Grammar Book Ever, The Best Grammar Workbook Ever and Fifty Shades of Grammar, a collection of fifty of her blog posts. For more information about Arlene, visit her website The Grammar Diva.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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