3 Language Resolutions for 2023
I’m not a huge fan of resolutions, full disclosure. But I am a big fan of watching our language grow and change—and helping writers and readers move along with it. So while the dictionaries are rolling out their words of the year and Google’s tallying up the most-searched terms of 2022, it’s a good time to make sure our messages are keeping up with the times. Because at the end of the day, we can’t control the language shifts happening all around us, but we can embrace them to make our own work better.
Before you set those intentions for the year ahead, here are three language resolutions to help your words hit the mark and resonate in 2023.
Resolution #1: Don’t assume people know what you mean
There’s a reason writers are told not to check their own work: It’s incredibly easy to be too close to the subject you’re writing about, especially when your audience is new to the topic or won’t have a lot of time with your message.
As an editor, I flag copy every day, asking whether it’ll be clear to someone brand-new to the message. Because if it makes me—someone “on the inside”—pause, it’s definitely going to trip up someone on the outside. And here’s the thing: It’s my job to read things twice. Your audience? Not so much. If they stumble on a sentence or don’t understand what you’re saying, I promise they’re not going back for a second pass, let alone taking the time to sit and think about what you mean. And that means your message just got lost in a black hole.
If you’re looking for a great cautionary tale, check out Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? on Netflix. If just one person had questioned one line of copy—and been heard—the company might have avoided years of very public legal battles.
So ask questions—and listen when other people ask them. Flag confusing copy, even if you feel a little silly asking what might feel like an obvious question. Because when you add it all up, you get messages that hit the mark they’re actually aiming for.
Resolution #2: Keep your eye on DEI
Perhaps the most inclusive language to come out of the past few years is the singular they. Which is to say it’s been around for hundreds of years, but there’s finally broad acceptance of it not just as a writing tool, but as a pronoun.
And yes! Singular they is a big part of any DEI language initiatives. It fits squarely in the part of writing that considers how your audience is going to feel about and relate to your words—and the potential harm they can cause. I’ve written before about DS+CO’s commitment to inclusive language, and I’ll be updating our annual blog to reflect how our guidance has shifted and evolved since our DEI style guide’s first iteration. Language and DEI go hand in hand, and they’re far-reaching.
But back to singular they. You can’t deny there’s a significant language change happening here, and as a casual linguist, it’s exciting. For me, Instagrammer and sometimes grammarian Abraham Piper said it best:
“Here’s the problem with they being a singular pronoun. First off, it is singular. It’s plural, too, but we’re way past it making sense for someone to correct your grammar when they use they to mean an individual person. … But here’s the problem. It creates a grammatical vacuum in our language because we no longer have a distinct third-person plural pronoun. … This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be singular. It’s way more interesting than that. It means that we as English speakers in our little dialectal enclaves are about to invent new third-person plural pronouns. How exciting is that? This isn’t far-fetched. The exact same thing happens with our second-person pronouns. You is both singular and plural. But it feels slightly off to just bluntly say you to a group of people. So we adapt. We invented plurals. Y’all, you guys and in Pittsburgh, yins. As they becomes increasingly common as a third-person singular, how will our language evolve to mark the third-person plural? I have no idea, but it’s going to be fun to watch.”
We’re about to invent new third-person plural pronouns! Which is a great segue into Resolution #3.
Resolution #3: Go with the language flow
Language evolves, and right now, it’s changing rapidly. Take, for example, my 12-year-old, who brought the phrase “good soup” into our house this year. These things are like our own little personal earworms—until they’re not. By the time the grownups started muttering “good soup,” the kids had moved on. And we, as expected, are behind on the trend before we even get there. (And let’s be clear: That’s just fine.)
This September, Merriam-Webster added 370 new words to the dictionary, including greenwash, metaverse, laggy, sponcon and even sus. I picked those examples because they’re some of the fastest-moving words on this year’s list. Let’s take that last one. “Sus” actually has a long (and controversial) history dating back to 1930s Britain. But in 2018, it exploded onto the language scene thanks to the game Among Us. And again, no surprise it was the kids who brought us not just those colorful little murderous blobs, but also their vernacular. It took only four years for “sus” to go from obscure British slang to official dictionary entry.
This is my favorite resolution, because it not only lets us have fun with language, but it makes us all better writers—and more relatable to our audiences. Should you put today’s newest trendy word on a permanent installation that might have years of life? Probably not. And that comes with a word of caution about becoming the next “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme.
But on the whole, being flexible with language gives you some room to breathe and a better chance of connecting with your readers. And if you’re really paying attention, our language shifts can be absolutely fascinating. So go ahead and drop some of those outdated rules (I’m looking at you, “impact” and “very unique.”) and have some fun with the shifts 2023 brings to our language.
Jen Moritz is DS+CO’s senior editor with a passion for the right words and thoughtful writing.