No more catering to peevers
I am taking a stand with Arrant Pedantry, whose proprietor points out the flaw in going along with shibboleths and superstitions—split infinitives, singular they, hopefully as a sentence adverb, you know them—of usage to avoid exciting the attention of their adherents:
The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage. ...
You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics.
In editing, I haven’t revised split infinitives or stranded prepositions for years. Recently I stopped rewriting singular they in copy and have encountered no reaction; perhaps it is becoming so commonplace that even the peevers don’t always register it. And now I think it’s time to stet hopefully.
Here’s a suggestion for you: Go back to yesterday’s post about the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and copy the entry on hopefully. Keep it handy. When you get an email from a reader complaining that you allowed it, paste the entry and hit Reply. If it doesn’t persuade, it may at least silence.
You know how the Associated Press Stylebook decides on usage? Its editors say that they follow the practice of newspapers. You know what newspapers do about usage? They follow the AP Stylebook. (Or did while they still troubled to employ copy editors.) That serpent has been chewing on its own tail long enough. It makes more sense for informed writers and editors to establish usage than to cede authority to the zombie rule crowd.
That does not mean that anything goes or that every skunked usage is fine. Editing always requires judgments. I am, for example, going to use prompts the question or raises the question when some statement or action leads to a question, restricting begs the question to contexts in which someone is making a circular argument. (So many people do that it is a useful term.) But I am highly unlikely ever to use niggardly. I know and you know that it comes from a Scandinavian root meaning “stingy” and has nothing more to do with a racial slur than an accidental phonetic resemblance. But the amount of energy involved in justifying it to a general and inflamed audience would be disproportionate, and the original point would be lost in the shouting anyhow.
You, too, will have to draw lines, depending on subject, occasion, and audience, but I think you can be bolder than you have been.