Friday, May 24, 2019

Recent Changes & Updates in Writing Style Guides

by Lori Hatcher @LoriHatcher2

If you’ve been a writer long, you know the English language is ever-changing. Does email have a hyphen or not? Is the word internet capitalized or lowercased? And what in the world is a singular they? It sounds a little schizophrenic if you ask me.

Because grammar, spelling, and formatting rules change, it’s important to stay as up-to-date as possible as you write and submit blog posts and articles. Your editors will appreciate you, the publications you write for will invite you to contribute more often, and your edited articles will no longer look like the victim in a slasher movie. 

Today I’d like to share several changes and points of style you may find helpful. In the spirit of full disclosure, I also struggle with (and sometimes fail to remember) the rules that govern them. When in doubt, look it up. But be sure to use credible sources. One of my new favorite reference books is Dreyer’s English, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer.

The Singular They

Every year, editors announce big stylebook changes at the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) annual meeting. In 2017, they announced, “the AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy.” Even though I squirm a little, this change helps us avoid the annoying and often interruptive he/she or his/her.

Example: The teacher announced that each student could use one homework pass a month. This means he or she won’t have to turn in his or her homework on the night of the big football game.  

Change To: The teacher announced that each student could use one homework pass a month. This means they won’t have to turn in their homework on the night of the big football game.  

 The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

Exclamation Points

The late Sue Duffy first editor at Reach Out, Columbia magazine, gently but firmly told me, “Use as few exclamation points as possible—only when someone is shrieking or their house is on fire.” Even now, years later, whenever my left pinkie reaches for that forbidden punctuation mark, I hear her voice and my pinkie returns to its proper place. 

“Began to” and “Started to”

In most cases, it’s best to avoid the use of “began to” or “started to.” 

Example: “Tears began to roll down his cheeks.”

Change To: “Tears rolled down his cheeks.”

We don’t begin to cry, we cry. We don’t start to walk, we walk. We don’t begin to eat, we eat.

Occasionally someone might start to walk to the front of the church and change his mind, but most of the time, it’s best to use the verb only. If you’re not sure which is correct, try it both ways. You’ll realize that began to and started to are usually unnecessary.

Were vs. Was

Remember the hot dog jingle, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener”? Why doesn’t it go, “I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener”? Many writers struggle with knowing when to use were and when to use was.

Dryer proposes this rule of thumb: “If you’re writing of a situation that is not merely not the case but is unlikely, improbable, or just plain impossible, you can certainly reach for a ‘were.’ If you’re writing of a situation that is simply not the case but could be, you might opt for a ‘was’.” 

Example Using Were: If I were to become the president of the United States, I’d end war, rid the world of nuclear weapons, and give every ten-year-old a bike.”

Example Using Was: If I was in that meeting, I’d have asked for a raise.

I hope these examples of grammar and style have made you think and settled more questions than they’ve raised. Applying them to your writing will quell that editor’s red pen and make your writing better. And in case you’re wondering, during that 2017 meeting of the ACES, editors also announced the Associate Press would no longer use a hyphen in email and lowercase the word internetThe Chicago Manual of Style followed suit the next day. 

Now you know.


Lori Hatcher is the editor of Reach Out, Columbiamagazine and the author of several devotional books. Hungry for God … Starving for Time, Five-Minute Devotions for Busy Womenwon the 2016 Christian Small Publisher Book of the Year award. Her most recent book, Refresh Your Faith – Uncommon Devotions from Every Book of the Bible is due out in the spring of 2020.A blogger, writing instructor, and inspirational speaker, her goal is to help women connect with God in the craziness of life. You’ll find her pondering the marvelous and the mundane on her blog, Hungry for God. . . Starving for Time. Connect with her on Facebook,Twitter(@LoriHatcher2), or Pinterest(Hungry for God).


  1. Great advice, Lori. (And yes, I almost added an exclamation mark to that sentence.)

  2. Thanos for the grammar lesson. It's hard to keep up with English grammar.

  3. I struggle with the new "they" rule, but I understand (and agree) the rationale for the change.

    Interesting and helpful post.

  4. I’m grateful for the “they” change. But it seems to me the last example would be...If I had been in that meeting. ... “i was” sounds strange to me. Thoughts?

  5. Thanks for sharing. And it was nice to meet you in the registration line at BRMCWC this week.

  6. I appreciate these, Lori. The CMS and I don't get along. lol I jsut have a hard time finding things in it.

  7. Actually, the CMS is for left brains. Mine is too right. :-)