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12 Grammar Rules That Changed in the Last Decade

Go ahead and split that infinitive! Here are the grammar rules that have changed in the past ten years.

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Hello, Grammar Purist…

Language is ever-evolving, according to Mignon Fogarty, self-titled “Grammar Girl” and author of Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. She explains that grammar rules are often in a consistent state of flux; they shift in line with cultural convention as they adapt to new norms. “Proper English” is strict, but following it strictly can make you seem stuffy. As an example, Fogarty calls out the rule that calls for a comma after the greeting, before the name, in email salutations (see above). Following that rule could make you seem strange and hamper your message, which is why it’s one of the rules that Grammar Girl has let go. Many of the recent changes in rules reflect progressive changes with regard to gender, race, and associated biases as experts want the language to reflect evolution that shows inclusiveness and respect. Here are the most confusing rules in the grammar world.

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The singular “they”

One of the biggest and most progressive changes in grammar involves the use of the singular pronoun “they.” Think of “they” or “their” as replacing the awkward and imprecise use of “he or she” and “his or her” in sentences like “Each person went to his or her desk,” or the even more outdated use of “he” as a universal stand-in for both genders. Now you can write, “Each person went to their desk,” which doesn’t make assumptions about gender even if the persons are generic. However, the new use of “they” also acknowledges the specific pronoun of persons who don’t identify with “he” or “she.” In that sense, using “they” offers language that is “respectful and inclusive,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA) Style Blog. If you know a person’s preferred pronouns, always use those, and be aware of preferences such as “ze” or “hen.” In fact, the dictionary just changed the dictionary definition for “they” and added other recent additions.

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Don’t use “Indian” when you mean Native American

The term “Indian” refers to people from South Asia or India. “American Indian” is sometimes used to refer to someone who is Native American, but it’s becoming less common. Use “Native Americans” and, whenever possible, use the specific name of the person’s tribe. Referring to them as “Indians” sounds just plain outdated. Find out some more words and phrases that can make you sound stupid.

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Relax hyphens for compound modifiers

The AP Stylebook, the go-to authority guide for all things grammar and punctuation, recently offered new recommendations on hyphens. When it comes to compound modifiers, leave the hyphen out—their example was “first-quarter” as “first quarter.” That’s not a hard and fast rule though; the idea is to leave the hyphen out if it adds clutter and keep it if it adds clarity. Plus, learn the difference between a hyphen and a dash and when to use each

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Don’t use “black” or “white” as nouns

The latest AP Stylebook changes take into account progressive cultural changes in awareness and sensitivity and are guided by input from people of color. Race descriptors like “black” or “white” should never be used unless they are relevant or crucial in some way, such as to describe a missing person. You should also never use a term like “blacks” as a plural stand-in because it erases the sense of human identity. Instead, use “black people,” but only with the descriptor “black” if it’s necessary and relevant. You should also stop saying these 20 trendy slang words ASAP.

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Drop the hyphen in dual heritage identity

You should no longer write “African-American,” or place a hyphen between compound nationalities or ethnicities. Leave the hyphen out of such terms, and use, for example, “Asian American” to indicate dual heritage identities. The AP Stylebook editors made this change, as reported by Columbia Journalism Review, because “it reflects a growing acknowledgment among news organizations that racial and ethnic identities are individual.” The hyphen suggests bias, because it gives equal weight to the word on either side, according to Journal-isms. The hyphen creates an identity that may not reflect the individual. Here are 12 grammatical errors even smart people make.

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More hype regarding hyphens

According to The New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, the latest AP Stylebook guidelines advise dropping the hyphen in “‘double-E’ combinations, such as ‘preeclampsia,’ ‘preelection,’ ‘preeminent,’ ‘preempt,’ ‘reenter,’ etc.” In general, the latest hyphen guidelines suggest that fewer is always better. Find out 10 more grammar rules it’s probably safe to ignore.

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And now you can start sentences with a coordinating conjunction

You’ve probably always heard that you should never start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or, “or.” But maybe you do it anyway? And you’ve gotten away with it? But you still feel nervous when you break this rule? According to Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, these conjunctions offer a “soft” opening for sentences. You can use them, but see if you can find a stronger, more effective choice before dropping this style choice into your writing. It’s one of the little grammar rules you can follow to sound smarter.

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Use the percent sign 100% of the time

Norris reported on some of these grammar rule changes at the most recent American Copy Editors Society conference. She explained that writing out “percent” and “percentage” is now passé. The new rules allow the use of the percent sign (%) after a numeral. The New Yorker is known for its quirky, eccentric grammar conventions, and Norris reports the magazine will continue to use “per cent,” as two words. Oh well, there are always going to be some spelling and grammar rules no one can agree on.

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End sentences with prepositions if you want to

Prepositions (“at,” “for,” “by,” “of,” “on,” “in,” “after,” “with,” etc.) indicate time, place, and direction in your sentences. They show the relationship between nouns, pronouns, and other words. Dreyer advises that ending your sentence with a preposition is often “weaker than it ought to be,” even though it’s sometimes necessary. Basically, you can end your sentence with a preposition when you’d strangle your sentence to otherwise avoid it. For instance, is good grammar something for which you are known? Or is it what you’re known for? If it is, see if you can pass this high school–level grammar test!

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Split an infinitive

If you’re one of those people whose English papers were covered in red ink with “Split Infinitive!” written in the margins, you’ll like this news: The rule that you shouldn’t split an infinitive is changing. When you split an infinitive, you put an adverb between “to” and the verb, as in “to boldly go.” In short, to rampantly split infinitives is common, and becoming acceptable. The goal is both to clearly communicate and to communicate clearly. If you’re into rule-breaking, you’ll want to find out the 14 grammar rules your teacher may have lied to you about.

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“Whom” is dying

Linguistics, the study of language and its structure, is a social science. In that sense, it’s always evolving and adapting to changes that are primarily social (that link to people). According to linguist Oscar Tay, the use of “whom” is “dying” because language is adapting away from the use of the “accusative case.” “Whom” is still used in formal writing, but it’s feeling more archaic, like “thy,” “thee,” and “thine.” Time for some word nerd jokes—here are 20 to make your funny bone cringe.

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Because emphasis

You know every sentence needs to have at least two parts: a subject and a verb. If it doesn’t, it’s a sentence fragment, and, according to the rules, technically incorrect. However, as language becomes less formal, fragments and other casual styles have gained prominence. The best time to use a sentence fragment is when you want to add emphasis to your writing or give it a certain tone. Like, whatever grammar. (Did you notice the fragment?) Despite all this, though, there are some rules that still hold firm—including, yes, these grammar rules you should still follow on social media.