English has always evolved – that’s what it means to be a living language – and now the internet plays a pivotal role in driving this evolution. It’s where we talk most freely and naturally, and where we generally pay little heed to whether or not our grammar is “correct”.

Should we be concerned that, as a consequence, English is deteriorating? Is it changing at such a fast pace that older generations can’t keep up? Not quite. At a talk in 2013, linguist David Crystal, author of Internet Linguistics, said: “The vast majority of English is exactly the same today as it was 20 years ago.” And his collected data indicated that even e-communication isn’t wildly different: “Ninety per cent or so of the language you use in a text is standard English, or at least your local dialect.”

It’s why we can still read an 18th-century transcript of a speech George Washington gave to his troops and understand it in its entirety, and why grandparents don’t need a translator when sending an email to their grandchildren.

However, the way we communicate – the punctuation (or lack thereof), the syntax, the abbreviations we use – is dependent on context and the medium with which we are communicating. We don’t need to reconcile the casual way we talk in a text or on social media with, say, the way we string together sentences in a piece of journalism, because they’re different animals.

On Twitter, emojis and new-fangled uses of punctuation, for instance, open doors to more nuanced casual expression. For example, the ~quirky tilde pair~ or full. stops. in. between. words. for. emphasis. While you are unlikely to find a breezy caption written in all lowercase and without punctuation in the New York Times, you may well find one in a humorous post published on BuzzFeed.

As the author of the BuzzFeed Style Guide, I crafted a set of guidelines that were flexible and applicable to hard news stories as well as the more lighthearted posts our platform publishes, such as comical lists and takes on celebrity goings-on, as well as to our social media posts. For instance, I decided, along with my team of copy editors, to include a rule that we should put emojis outside end punctuation not inside, because the consensus was that it simply looks cleaner to end a sentence as you normally would and then use an emoji. Our style guide also has comprehensive sections on how to write appropriately about serious topics, such as sexual assault and suicide.

Language shifts and proliferates due to chance and external factors, such as the influence the internet has on slang and commonplace abbreviations. (I believe that “due to” and “because of” can be used interchangeably, because it’s the way we use those phrases in speech; using one rather than the other has no impact on clarity.) So while some of Strunk and White’s famous grammar and usage rules – for example, avoiding the passive voice, never ending a sentence with a preposition – are no longer valuable, it doesn’t mean we’re putting clarity at stake. Sure, there’s no need to hyphenate a modifying phrase that includes an adverb – as in, for example, “a successfully executed plan” – because adverbs by definition modify the words they precede, but putting a hyphen after “successfully” would be no cause for alarm. It’s still a perfectly understandable expression.

Writers and editors, after consulting their house style guide, should rely on their own judgment when faced with a grammar conundrum. Prescriptivism has the potential to make a piece of writing seem dated or stodgy. That doesn’t mean we need to pepper our prose with emojis or every slang word of the moment. It means that by observing the way we’re using words and applying those observations methodically, we increase our chances of connecting with our readers – prepositions at the end of sentences and all. Descriptivism FTW!

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