Did you know that the way you write can give away your age? That’s because language is evolving, and some of us either aren’t getting the memo or are refusing to change with the times. The longer you ignore changing rules, though, the more your copy makes you irrelevant. Let’s take a look at three ways you can update your writing immediately.
Eliminate double spaces between sentences
There’s a huge debate on this when, in fact, the transition to one space between sentences gained speed in the 1950s, and then went full force once word processors and computers took over. So why did so many of us learn to use two spaces?
Thank the typewriter and its unforgivingly monospaced type, where every character received the same allotted space, whether it was an “I” or a “W.” Monospaced type made text difficult to read, so we added the extra space between sentences to compensate. Those of us who started typing on typewriters have a hard time letting go, but, like the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A quips about the phenomenon, “I’m so sorry to report that that ship sailed long ago. You are a lone voice, crying in the wilderness.” Now nearly every popular font aside from Courier is proportional. So just let that extra space go.
Stop misusing quotation marks
Reading this article will make you “smarter.” See what I did just there? I made you question whether you’ll actually get smarter. The use of quotation marks around a single word or phrase for emphasis is a precarious undertaking. It was once an innocent means of highlighting an important word. It gave that word authority.
But no more.
Now when there’s any room for interpretation, quote marks represent a much different connotation. They’ve become a way to highlight words or ideas the writer feels are ironic, inaccurate, or worthy of skepticism. Quotes used this way are called scare quotes. (If you want to truly nerd over the evolution, check out this article from The Atlantic.)
You’ll see quotation marks used throughout this article for what Grammarly calls “writing about words as words.” And, of course, use quotation marks when quoting what someone said, as you always have. But when emphasizing a word or idea you think is important, consider whether those quotes will convey the meaning you want them to convey. Chances are—right or wrong—they’ll insert some sort of weird ambiguity that might make your reader feel paranoid or offended. And that’s “usually” not good.
Free yourself from pronoun purgatory
Remember the old days when “he” was the default setting for pronouns when gender wasn’t known?
And then we all got a bit more open-minded and tried out “he/she” and “he or she” and proudly made everyone stumble awkwardly through our enlightened-but-wordy copy? You might have a strong opinion about conforming to the new idea that gender and sex are two very different categories and that those categories should be respected when you’re writing. You might also be worried that you’ll soon be forced to add a string of other pronouns to the already lengthy “he/she.”
Rest assured, those fears are unfounded.
In fact, your job in naming people’s genders just got a heck of a lot easier. Here’s how: When in question, use the singular “they.”
“But that breaks all the rules!” you might be screaming at your screen. Ah, but it doesn’t. Most style guides now accept it as standard usage. Why? You’ve been using the singular “they” in your speech for a long time now. Admit it.
As Geoff Nunberg of NPR’s Fresh Air points out, “We say, ‘Somebody lost their wallet,’ or, ‘If a student fails, they have to retake the course.’ Or…your daughter’s cell phone rings at the dinner table; you say, ‘Tell them you’ll call them back.’”
It’s actually quite natural to use. It works. Really, the issue fits nicely into the category of writing in a conversational voice, which we’ve discussed before. So don’t fight it.
Evolution or de-evolution?
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. Another area that comes to mind is outdated digital references. In case you’re unaware, the Associated Press renamed “e-mail” to “email” back in 2011 and demoted “internet” and “web” to lowercase words in 2016.
Are these changes evolution? De-evolution? Who’s to say?
“American English gets to the point faster now than it ever has,” observed Thomas T. Hills, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at University of Warwick. “But you can just as easily say it has become more childlike.” Consider that, before written words, we communicated through pictures (think of cave paintings). Are we heading back that way with our emoji culture? “If the trend continues, we should all be speaking and writing something like Twitterese in the next several hundred years,” he added.
The bottom line is that your copy needs to be readable and relatable to truly be effective. The rules for doing this are in a constant state of motion. Don’t distract readers from what you’re saying by the way you’re saying it, and consider letting go of grammar and punctuation choices that have become out of fashion.
Image credit: Pixabay