Columns > Published on October 8th, 2021

Lessons from 10 Years of Writing About Grammar

10 years ago, I made my LitReactor debut with an article about brainstorming story ideas for National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). I find this hilarious now since I only ever did NaNoWriMo once—in 2010—and I’ve never done one since. Not because it’s not a great idea, but because I had my first kid in early 2012 and I haven’t had 2 minutes to myself ever since. (I am writing this now with my 4 year-old asking me to open his third pack of fruit snacks today…ok, he’s gone now…put 2 minutes on clock…)

At first, I wrote articles about craft, but I soon found a niche writing about that most boring of topics—grammar. I have written 119 columns for LitReactor—and most of them have been about grammar, style, punctuation, and usage. I have taught more than 30 grammar classes for the site, and I have settled into the self-appointed role of Head Grammarian. (TBH, no one else was really vying for it—I mean, why would they?!)

I’m kind of amazed at how much grammar advice I’ve passed out in the last decade, and going back over some of my articles, I find that most of it is still relevant. English grammar is like the snail in my garden: it’s very slow, but it’s always moving. For LitReactor's 10 Year Anniversary, I’m going to go over a few developments in the grammar world from the last decade that have made a noticeable difference in the way we write and communicate. I’ll also go over some of the advice I’ve given to determine if it still holds, or if I've had to eat my words.

Gender Neutral Pronouns

In my very first column published on LitReactor, I used “his/her.” Ugh.  Not only is HIS-SLASH-HER inaccurate, it’s awkward and ugly, and nearly impossible to say out loud without stumbling. I doubled down on that BS in December of 2012 when I encouraged people to avoid using they/them as singular pronouns and instead use his or her or rewrite the whole thing. You can read my crap advice here:

Ugh, I want to punch 2012 Taylor.

The Taylor of 2015, however, had a change of heart. In that year, I wrote a couple articles in which I advocate for a singular “they”.

I’m happy to say that gender neutral pronouns are becoming more common. In 2017, the Associated Press officially added it to their style guide, which paved the way for gender neutral pronouns to appear in a variety of news articles and journalism outlets. This is important because it means “they” could become a well-known, oft-used, and standardized pronoun. This may not seem like much, but many, many people look at news articles as a baseline for clear, exacting writing. The AP solidifies the precedent by making it a part of their everyday reporting of what's happening in the world, and that’s good news for all of us.

A Comma Worth 5 Million Bucks

I’m happy to say that my opinion on the usefulness of the Oxford Comma has not changed. The OC, as no one has ever called it, is a serial comma used before “and” and “or” when writing items in a list. The name comes from the Oxford University Press which advocates for that additional comma in its style guide. Check out my defense of the little tadpole in these articles:

Many mainstream, non-literary-minded style guides omit the serial comma. Famously, the Associated Press, which sets the standard for news writing, does not promote the Oxford Comma. The company I work for also omits the serial comma from its internal style guide, which seems to be the prevailing opinion of other marketing-minded guides. The argument is that it’s not needed for the reader to understand the sentence, and it takes up valuable space on the page.

As you probably know, I say pfft! to that. I know it seems like a butter battle, but Pro Oxford Comma People have often pointed out that adding the comma very rarely, if ever, results in confusion. Whereas, leaving it out could leave you five million dollars lighter.

Case in point: in 2018, news outlets reported the case of a missing serial comma in the Maine state law that cost a dairy company five million dollars in unpaid overtime for delivery drivers. The court upheld the opinion that the omitted comma caused confusion and made unclear the intention of the law. This is precisely the argument that Pro OC People make and have made over and over again. Is the value of the page space really worth millions of dollars? Just use it, people. Let’s end the insanity now.

Plain Language

There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of this, but you have been on the receiving end of it. In October of 2010, President Obama passed the Plain Writing Act. This act created a law requiring that government documents and communications “issued to the public must be written clearly.”

The law gave government agencies like the IRS and other federal organizations one year to rewrite their communications to adhere to plain language standards. Without listing all the stipulations, the idea of plain language writing is to write clearly, directly, and in a way that ensures the reader understands. First person pronouns are used to create an informal tone. Active verbs communicate exactly what the reader should do and what they need to know. Bulleted lists replace wordy paragraphs to make important information easy to find on the page.

Another feature of plain language is ensuring the text can be read and understood by an average English speaker—specifically a person with, at most, an eighth-grade education. It may not surprise you that there is a very complicated system of determining whether a piece of written content is complicated or not—it’s called the Flesch-Kincaid readability system. It gauges how difficult a passage is to read by measuring how long words and sentences are and how advanced the vocabulary is. If you really want to know all the details, check out the link to the Wikipedia article. The Plain Language Act advocates using the Flesch-Kincaid system to create content that an eighth grader or lower could read. It requires them to consider their word choices and opt to use the simpler, more common words. It directs writers to shorten sentences and paragraphs to make information easier to understand.

At first, this mandate applied only to government-controlled entities and to highly regulated industries that depend on federal support, such as federal money lenders, education loan servicers, and mortgage companies. They were also required to re-write their communication to adhere to plain language standards. And, over the last decade, the conversion to plain language has trickled down into associated industries, such as banking, insurance, healthcare, and utilities.

I personally became familiar with plain language when the insurance company I work for started a project to rewrite all their customer correspondence in plain language. In case you're wondering—it's a pretty big undertaking. I've been on the project for 3 years, and we've still got at least 3 more years of work to do.

10 years ago, I probably wouldn't have understood the power of plain language. It's a lot harder than you think to write plainly. When I was learning to write, I was—like many people—trained to consider professional writing as very formal and full of big, smart-sounding words. The more something sounded like a legal jargon filled contract, the better. It turns out, convincing people to abandon their wordy styles isn't the easiest task. And telling people to write like an eighth grader sometimes isn't received well. I heard many times that we were dumbing down the letters we sent to our customers, and--10 years ago—I would have agreed!

Now, I've seen the power of plain language in action. It allows a wider range of people to understand crucial information about the agencies that control a significant portion of their lives—banks, insurance companies, health facilities, tax agencies—and it has served to create a more equitable system of communication for all Americans.

Capitalizing Black and White

In 2013, I instructed readers on what to capitalize and what not to capitalize. In that article, I gave guidelines on how to approach capitalization when it comes to religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, and political affiliation.

My advice holds true, but I want to point out how capitalizing race in written communication has played out in our national conversation. In June of 2020, less than a month after the murder of George Floyd, the Associated Press announced it would start capitalizing Black when referring to the race of a person. However, it would not capitalize White. If you search this topic, you will find a ton of opinions—many of those in the last year. However, this is not a new topic, and there are style guides that recommended capitalizing both well before the events of 2020 turned the nation’s attention to it. Honestly, I wonder why the AP was so slow to adapt, but even they don’t seem 100% satisfied they’ve made the correct decision.

Other journalism and publishing institutions disagreed with the AP’s announcement, and asserted they will capitalize both Black and White because assuming that "White" is somehow not significantly descriptive while "Black" is serves to perpetuate the idea the being White is a default. I, too, think it’s appropriate to capitalize White and Black, and I hope the AP adopts the practice. 

In my article, I mention that Caucasian and African American should be capitalized, but now I think we need to reevaluate these terms altogether. These terms are overly specific and not it a good way. For one, unless you or your ancestors have roots in the Caucasus region, you are not Caucasian. Just being White does not make a person Caucasian. The term comes from a long-ago idea that people of the Caucasus region had superior genetics. Then some Europeans decided that honor should apply to them, and they coopted the term to mean a person who is light-skinned and of European heritage—i.e. White. It does irk me to still see Caucasian used for White as an option for racial identity. It’s not news that the term in outdated and racist toward non-White people, so why do we persist in using it?

I do think there is a lot of work being done—by those who care—to reevaluate all the terms used to describe people. As for African American, it seems weird to continuously single out Black people whose ancestors have lived in the US since before the US was the US, as being from somewhere else. That’s just not accurate. However, it’s a personal choice. If I can call myself Irish American because I had a great-great-grandfather who came from Ireland, then anyone whose family came from Africa—no matter how long ago—can call themselves African American.

The point here is: THERE IS NO ONE PERFECT WORD. Identity is fluid, and it’s not up to anyone to decide for anyone else. The words we use to describe ourselves and others are only good when they are accurate and without bias. The words can and will change, and you will have to keep up. What worked 10 years ago might not work now. Always seek to find the most updated and thoughtful advice before selecting a term to describe a person or a people. And don’t just settle for the latest buzz word. Just because a term seems to cover a whole lot of identities (I’m looking at you, BIPOC), it doesn’t mean it’s the best word for the situation.

If you would like some updated advice, check out the America Psychological Association’s explanation of how best to handle writing about racial and ethnic identity without sounding like a racist jerk.

Memes are Here to Stay

In 2014, I wrote an article about the 10 words I wish would disappear from popular use called 10 Social Media Words That Need to Die. In it, I specifically picked on the words viral, meme, twee, bestie, frenemy, selfie, and others that, at the time, seemed to appear in every article I read.

Well, I may as well have posted a gif of me, grey-haired, standing on a porch, telling young whippersnappers to get off my lawn. In fact, I’m probably aging myself just using such a reference. My kids think “old” means going to a store to rent a movie. They’re not wrong.

If there’s one thing having kids in 2021 has showed me is that memes are life. My kids spend HOURS watching YouTube videos in which creator after creator re-memes a character, song, or idea from a tv show, game, or movie into a slightly different version. My kids’ watch list include things like "Top 10 Piggy Memes" and "Best No, God, Please No Memes."

They quote, unironically, the Michael Scott line from The Office in which he discovers his nemesis, Toby, has returned to work after supposedly quitting and exclaims, “No, God. Please No. NO! NO! Noooooo!” They’ve never seen The Office, and wouldn’t get the joke at all, but they’ve seen 100 versions of it applied to 100 different YouTube clips. They also endlessly repeat memes related to: Run!; Bruh; Momo; He Needs Some Milk; Friday Night Funkin’; Sus and others that are so obscure that I can’t even explain them. It is an integral part of their entertainment, and they weave them into their everyday communications and vocabulary.

Whether I like it or not, memes and the whole of the social media lexicon are a part of my life and a part of my kids’ lives. It's just the latest iteration in an art-to-language cycle that is forever turning. 

And I'm sorry, so sorry, that I doubted its power. *Bows*

On a Personal Note

Never in my wildest dreams, did I think I would spend 10 years writing about grammar and love every minute of it. I hated it in grade school. I assumed I knew it in college. And in grad school, I learned that I didn’t know shit. I’ve spent 16 years finally learning what a style guide was and what agreement meant. I learned verb moods and comma rules. I spent time looking up where to put quotation marks and when to spell out numbers. I’ve studied the cultural nuances of different usage choices and dove deep into debates about how to make plurals. And I’ve shared that journey with the LitReactor community.

I love this gig and all the people I’ve met here. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled into a place where I can nerd out about writing and grammar and feel 100% at home. Thanks for reading my columns. Thanks for taking my classes. Thanks for calling me out. Thanks for encouraging me. Thanks for the hard questions. Thanks for learning alongside me.

I look forward to the next 10 years with you all!



About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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