I said, you said, or What kind of bullet was that again?

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

Every time I change “silver bullet” to “magic bullet” when talking about a targeted, almost improbable, solution to a vexing problem, I wonder the same thing: Should I stop correcting things that appear to have taken root in the language?

My internal war begins: One part of me says, “I don’t make the rules; I just enforce them. Maybe I can just let this slide.” Another voice chimes in, “I must retain the dignity and precision of our language.” Just recently the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and the Associated Press decided to relent and allow “hopefully” to mean “I hope” and not “to approach something in a hopeful manner.” Nobody wants to be that stereotypical spinster English teacher who says not to use “awful” unless you mean “full of awe.” Editors must often bring authors up to date with current usage. “No, it is all right to split infinitives now. Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition.”

Language use evolves but cultural references are another matter. Should we have Romeo talking to the ghost of Hamlet’s father? Or Captain Ahab clicking the heels of his ruby slippers while searching for the white whale? Ultimately I decide that it is best that our authors be in the know about our language and that I want to help them achieve that goal. And that—for now at least—silver bullets are for identifying the Lone Ranger and killing werewolves and magic bullets are for destroying illness and saving healthy cells. I will continue to change “silver” to “magic” until a better image comes along. Removing the bad and preserving the good? What a perfect metaphor for what I hope I do for other people’s writing.