Whether we like it or not, English is constantly changing. While we might have been taught that certain ways of saying things are set in stone, that’s not really the case. If you compare the English of today to that of hundreds of years ago — or even just a few decades ago — you can see how it has shifted in various ways. Some of these changes happen subtly over time, in a way that no one notices. Others are definitely noticed, however, and often rebelled against. There are countless English “errors” that are now considered correct (though it definitely depends on who you ask).
To show you the evolution of the modern English language, we found seven examples of past errors that now pass muster. Some are old, some are brand new and some are the subject of heated debate. Admittedly, some of the examples below might raise red flags in formal writing. The important thing to remember is that language is more flexible than we’re usually told it is. Also, remember that arguing about grammar on the internet is never worth it.
7 English Errors That Aren’t Really Errors Anymore
1. The Non-Literal Literally
It comes as no surprise that words change their meaning over time. Still, there are few changes in the English language that have gotten people more heated than using “literally” to mean, well, not actually literally. People will say “I’m literally dying right now” about pretty much anything these days. The issue with this particular change might be that the new use of the word is, quite literally, the opposite of the original use.
“Literally” isn’t alone, though. The word “terrific” used to mean “frightening” (it comes from the same root as “terrify”), and “awful” used to refer to things that are good (or “full of awe”). Another popular example is “nice,” which used to mean “stupid.” No one can predict how a word’s meaning will shift and change, and people seem to get by just fine with their non-literal use of “literally.” Not many people bat an eye at this supposed misuse anymore.
2. Combining Punctuation Marks
In formal writing, there’s a pretty hard-and-fast rule that the end of a sentence should only get one punctuation mark. In the wide world of informal writing, however, it’s pretty common to see repeated exclamation points, question marks and even commas. The multiple exclamation point is even creeping its way into professional emails.
The start of the punctuation piling may be the desire for a specific mark called the interrobang. A combination of the question mark and the exclamation point, it was designed to convey that a question has an extra amount of excitement or urgency. The problem was, the interrobang was never added to regular keyboards, so the easiest way to use it was to separate it into its constituent parts: ? and ! From there, the dam broke open. Particularly with the advent of the internet, people started combining punctuation to add more nuance to their informal writing. Anyone who texts regularly knows there’s a difference between “Hello!” and “Hello!!” A teacher might not consider it proper, but multiple punctuation marks have become an important way of conveying emotion through text.
3. Split Infinitives
One of the most lasting grammar edicts you may have heard is “Don’t split infinitives.” The infinitive is the unconjugated version of a verb, which shows up in certain sentences. In the sentence “I like to run,” for example, “to run” is an infinitive verb. Splitting the infinitive would mean to insert a word between the “to” and “run.” To make the sentence negative, for example, you might say “I like to not run,” or you might say “I like to regularly run” if you want to add a different modifier. The anti-split crowd would say those are wrong, however, and insist on “I don’t like to run” and “I like to run regularly,” respectively.
While this rule has been oft-repeated, it’s never really been strictly enforced. Written language is littered with split infinitives, and people use them in casual speech all the time. The origins of the rule have been traced back to a single person: Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury. In the 19th century, he wrote a text on the use of the English language and expressed a mild dislike for splitting infinitives, and it later caught on as a rule in various guides to grammar and writing. Today, split infinitives are as common as — if not more common than — non-split ones.
4. The Use Of Y’all
In the history of “correct” grammar, regional terms have often been entirely written off. The language of the southern United States in particular has been wrongfully disparaged with phrases like “Ain’t ain’t a word.” Even with that prejudice against it, “y’all” has slowly been working its way — across the United States at least — as a way to address groups of people.
Y’all’s spread is in part thanks to a certain lack in the English language: there is no second-person plural pronoun. The word “you” can be used for both an individual and for a group, yes, but that can easily lead to confusion. “Y’all” provides a nice gender-neutral alternative. To add an extra layer of English grammatical history, the English language used to have a singular and plural second-person plural: “thou” and “you,” respectively. Over time, though, “you” became used for both, much to the chagrin of 17th century grammarians. Thus, using “you” to refer to a single person also technically counts as a grammar error we now consider correct.
5. Ending A Sentence With A Preposition
For one last classic grammar rule, we have “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Instead of saying “I need something to sit on,” you would move the preposition “on” so it’s “I need something on which to sit.” For some people, this rearrangement of the sentence is necessary for the sentence to be properly ordered.
As far as grammar rules go, this is one of the weaker ones. It was popularized by poet John Dryden when he was making fun of fellow writer Ben Jonson’s grammar back in the 17th century, and it was listed in various grammar guides in the centuries to follow. Still, by the 20th century (and certainly the 21st), people mostly agreed that there was no real logic behind forcing the preposition away from the end of a sentence. That hasn’t stopped a certain type of grammarian from repeating the rule to this very day, however.
6. The Passive Voice
Another classic grammar rule is “Don’t use the passive voice.” This is a sentence construction where the subject of the sentence appears after the verb. For example, “Mike hit the ball” is in active voice, and “The ball was hit by Mike” is passive. If you listen to language authorities like William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White — authors of Elements of Style, arguably the most successful guide to writing in English ever written — the passive voice should be almost entirely avoided.
In all fairness, there are times when the passive voice shouldn’t work. Passive voice can be used to obscure something important. For example, the passive “John was shot” gives less information than “Mike shot John.” Today, though, the idea that the passive voice necessarily makes writing weaker or less compelling is passé. There are plenty of occasions where the passive voice may be useful or even necessary to convey information.
7. Spelling Color Without The U
To end the list, let’s look at one that shows another way languages change: people want it to. In the early 19th century, an American named Noah Webster decided he wanted to give the United States — a relatively new country — a new identity by changing the language it used. Webster proposed a number of changes, some of which never caught on, but many of which did. The letter “u” was removed from words like “armor” and “color,” the “s” was changed to a “z” in “authorize” and “romanticize,” and the last two letters of “theater” and “center” were flipped.
Yes, the version of these words that is considered “correct” depends on where you live. Writing “color” in the United Kingdom will mark you immediately as someone not from there, and vice versa with “colour” in the United States. Yet the fact that one person was able to get so many to agree on spelling changes is an impressive feat. Most attempts to force change on language tend to fail, like Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet. Noah Webster’s example really shows that language errors are often just a state of mind. One day’s mistake is the next day’s proper English (if there really is such a thing).