By Ali Dotson, Free Spirit copyeditor
It isn’t often that a movie comes along with a copyeditor as the lead, so despite the somewhat cringe-worthy plot (a shy 25-year-old woman goes undercover at a high school and falls for a teacher, ultimately resulting in her first kiss), I was delighted to identify with Josie Geller, Drew Barrymore’s newspaper-copyediting character in 1999’s Never Been Kissed.
I was a budding copyeditor when I saw the movie, working one night a week at my college newspaper, The Concordian. I still had a lot to learn, which became especially evident to me during a scene in which Josie makes fun of her editor when he hands her an article and says, “Hopefully the copy’s not a mess.” Josie gleefully corrects him: “It’s ‘hoped’ that it’s not a mess.” Continuing after her editor gives her an exasperated look, she explains, “‘Hopefully’ is an adverb. It means ‘with hope.’ You have it defining the copy. I’m pretty sure the copy doesn’t have feelings!”
Uh-oh. I had always used “hopefully” in the same way, but this scene’s message was clear—copyeditors were supposed to know better (even at the expense of appearing a bit high and mighty and pretty annoying when they correct people). The Concordian was small potatoes. I was aspiring to be a professional copyeditor! I vowed from then on to tirelessly study the English language, devour style books as though they were exciting murder mysteries, and take editing tests wherever I could find them. Since 1999, I have not used “hopefully” when what I mean is “I hope.”
Imagine my surprise, then, when a colleague broke the news to me that the Associated Press style guide recently changed its stance on the use of “hopefully.” The AP decided, after much debate, that it’s okay to say, “Hopefully it won’t rain at our picnic” or “Hopefully the Twins will win,” instead of “I hope it won’t rain at our picnic” or “I hope the Twins will win.”
On the one hand, I think acceptable usage should reflect what the masses are already doing. On the other hand, as a copyeditor, I resist caving in to popular culture across the board. Down with language anarchy! But the beauty of language is that we can breathe new life into it without lowering our standards for quality, or clarity. Language borders on useless if it doesn’t clearly communicate what we are trying to say. And whether I or other “word nerds” like it or not, sometimes we succeed at reaching our audience—in Free Spirit’s case, kids and the people who care about them—when we don’t blindly follow the stated-in-black-and-white rules. (Speaking of rules, when was the last time you were scolded for splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition?)
Part of our job in the editorial department is to understand the rules well enough that we can break them when it makes sense to. Debates about word usage matter because we care about even the smallest details of every book we publish, and every step of the publishing process counts. But these debates don’t end at “this is right” or “this is wrong.” To resort to stuffy language in the name of proper grammar would be to fail our readers. We need to be open, engaging, informative, and practical, because our readers must come first, not our egos or preoccupations with grammar.
Let’s return for a moment to the scene from Never Been Kissed in which Josie the copyeditor corrects her boss on his casual use of the word “hopefully.” As unbending as I can sometimes be about proper grammar and consistent style when it comes to the written word, I don’t agree with correcting people in their everyday speaking style. If I were to write as I speak, I would be a very poor writer—and if I were to speak as I write, well, I would spend a lot of my time overthinking everything I said, backtracking, apologizing, and correcting myself. In person we use gestures and facial expressions to convey our messages, so we don’t need to use college-level grammar all the time.
It’s different in writing. No one is there while our intended audience is reading our materials, ready to explain any confusing sentences or retract poorly written ones. Until fairly recently, with the advent of the Internet, the written word was mostly static: we had one chance to convey our message, so we had to make sure it was clear the first time (or wait to change it until the book was reprinted). If a reader comes across a word and looks it up in the dictionary, we want our usage to match what the dictionary prescribes as proper. Not only would it further confuse the reader if it didn’t, our reputation as a high-quality publisher might suffer as well.
With the Internet has come greater exposure to casual and even very careless language. What is the solution? Do we keep pounding away at the rules, correcting everyone out there who says, “Hopefully they won’t notice this mistake,” or do we lay down our stylebooks and assimilate into a less picky culture?
What do you think? Are you more conservative, believing that we should learn the rules and then stick to them no matter what? Or are you a bit more flexible, believing that language is not dead and writing should reflect popular usage? We want to hear from you, and we promise not to judge either way.
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