Dear grammar nerds, are your eyeballs burning? Are you composing an angry comment at this very moment about how I clearly meant figuratively? Oh, my poor sweet darlings, literally has been in use as an intensifier for figurative language since the late 18th century. Twerk is in the dictionary. The singular they is a throwback to the 16th century. Your English teacher lied to you: there’s no one right way to speak or write this language.
Why is that? It’s because English is a living language, meaning that it evolves over time as it’s used. You could probably communicate with English-speaking time travelers from 1700, 1890, and 1950, but you would immediately notice differences in the slang they used, the pronunciation of certain vowels, and perhaps even the way they constructed sentences. Ask them to write a note, and you’d see even more variation in punctuation, formal language, and how letters were shaped.
All of this is English. Source: Examples Of Letters Of The Seventeenth Century Found In Parish Registers Collected By The Society of Genealogists
None of these time travelers would be speaking English “wrong,” because there’s no governing body in charge of setting the rules or punishing bad grammarians. To you, the writer or reader, it might seem like these rules have been handed down from on high–but that’s not the case at all for English. There are institutions that do this, but only within the bounds of certain countries, and even then slang generally evolves faster than an official institution can track.
So when an editor marks up your work, what are they looking for? First of all, they’re making sure that your text is consistent with whatever style guide their publication has chosen to use; if you’ve ever scratched your head over the differences between Chicago Style, MLA style, and AP style, you know what I’m talking about here. These manuals are prescriptive: they lay out a set of rules about how English should be used that may or not correspond to how it’s really written or spoken. When you were taught rules like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” or “always put punctuation inside quotation marks,” your teacher was giving you information from this sort of style manual.
There are even multiple style guides for proofreader’s marks. Source
Editors also want to make sure that you’re using a form of English that’s generally accepted as correct. Dictionaries are usually descriptive: they record language as it’s commonly spoken and written, not as the dictionary editors want it to be spoken and written. That’s why English as it’s usually written today isn’t phonetic: the first dictionaries were recordings of how people were commonly spelling words, not manuals on how those words ought to be spelled. Since that time, the reading public has come to trust dictionary editors as authorities on the language, and so those recorded spellings started looking “correct” to the majority of the populace. Editors stick with the dictionary spelling not because it’s the only option, but because those commonly accepted spellings are the ones that look right to a modern reader.
Some editors will also suggest revisions for the sake of clarity. Writing rules like “avoid the passive voice” and “start an essay with a clear thesis” aren’t strictly necessary for written English, but they do help readers understand who did what and why they did it in a narrative. It’s generally wise to aim for clarity in your writing, but there are many good reasons to break these rules.
So don’t get upset the next time you learn that “they” are adding a new word to the dictionary, or getting rid of the Oxford comma, or revising the definition of a word. The mysterious “they” who always gets blamed in a certain sort of click-baiting article is actually one institution, or perhaps multiple institutions, who happen to have decided to update their own style guides to reflect the way that English is actually spoken and written. The English language is not being destroyed.
You literally could not be more wrong.