Many Voices One Mission: The Sometimes Difficult, Always Important, Evolution of Language

Many Voices One Mission: The Sometimes Difficult, Always Important, Evolution of Language

Language – and the evolution of language – is a fascinating thing. It can also be a frustrating and difficult thing. Because change is never easy.

I’m a journalist by training, having worked as a newspaper reporter before beginning in Conference communication more than 20 years ago. As a journalist, it was considered of utmost importance to use the proper rules when writing, for consistency and clarity. The Associated Press Stylebook is the “Bible” of newsrooms – the go to place when it comes to questions regarding proper use of titles, capitalization, etc. We each had one on our desk.

A new edition of the AP Stylebook is published every, single year. Why? Because language is changing so quickly.

Sometimes, these changes are easy.  Words like email and meme and glamping come into common usage, and for the most part, we all adjust and roll with it. It can be fascinating to find out which words Merriam-Webster adds to its latest dictionaries.

Then there are the words that become so outdated that we are glad to let them go. I am currently involved in a project to combine the Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island Conference databases into a single, new database. As we recently waded through a long, drop-down list of salutations imported from the old databases, it was easy for everyone to agree that we no longer needed “Miss” as an option.

But language changes don't happen overnight, and not everyone is ready for those changes at the same time. And that's where the challenge lies.

Another part of the database project has been standardizing how clergy are addressed. Traditional proper usage has said that a letter to a member of the clergy should be addressed to “The Rev. Dr. Sue Jones” or the “The Rev. Mr. Joe Smith” on the envelope. But when I recently asked clergy friends on Facebook how they prefer to be addressed, many said it was time to let go of the practice of specifying gender in their names with a "Mr." or a "Ms."  Also, traditional grammar says that one should begin a correspondence to a clergy person with "Dear Mr. Smith," not "Dear Rev. Smith," because reverend is an adjective - it should not be used without "the" preceding it. But many clergy say they prefer to be addressed as "Rev. Smith" and will sign their own correspondence that way. 

So it's tricky business deciding which rules we can let go, and which need to be held on to a while longer.

As another piece of the database project, we added a new field called “Preferred Pronoun.” The drop down list of options includes “She/Her/Hers,” “He/Him/His,” “They/Them/Their,” and “Other” with a place to enter another option. This is certainly not something that would have been seen in a database even a few years ago. 

The Boston Globe this week ran an article entitled “The long, long history — and bright future — of the genderless ‘they’.”  The article said, in part:

“As trans and nonbinary people have gained more public visibility, so has the singular ‘they.’ The Washington Post sanctioned its use in 2015, the same year that the singular “they” was voted the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, the guiding lights for almost all published writing in America today, both allowed the use of the singular ‘they’ for individuals who, like Herrera, do not use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ to identify themselves.”

Now, I will the first to admit, as a writer who has always been a stickler for the rules, I struggle with using “they” in the singular. In my imagination, the English teachers of my youth are scolding me. When someone uses “they” to refer to a single person in conversation, if often takes me some mental gymnastics to realize we’re talking about one person.

Changing the way we use language is not easy. But it is important to recognize that language has power and that it needs to evolve so that it does not cause harm.

May we all be gentle with one another as we navigate these changes together.

Tiffany Vail is the Associate Conference Minister of Communication for the CT, MA, and RI Conferences, UCC.
Many Voices
Many Voices, One Mission is a regular series highlighting the ministries of the
CT, MA, and RI Conference of the United Church of Christ.



tiffany vail cropped.jpg
Tiffany Vail

Tiffany Vail is the Director of Media & Communications for the Southern New England Conference.

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