Hopefully . . . Not.

Button distributed by opponents to the Save Ou...

Button distributed by opponents to the Save Our Children campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not long ago, I made a discovery of the sort that wakes up careful writers and editors in a cold sweat: something I had been doing all along, something that everyone does, something that felt perfectly natural . . . was incorrect.  That something was my use of the word “hopefully,” and I’m eager to see what my readers make of its reputed wrongness.

Here’s what happened: my boss, also an editor, noted wistfully that the rules for the use of “hopefully” had gone by the wayside.  Once reserved for modifying verbs, it was now used to express whole attitudes.  Oh no, I thought.  There’s a wrong way to use “hopefully”?  I looked it up in Strunk and White, and  I didn’t like what I found: “This once-useful adverb meaning ‘with hope’ has been distorted and is now widely used to mean ‘I hope’ or ‘it is to be hoped.’  Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. . . . Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable or even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense” (4th ed., chap. 4, p. 48).

This was a blow.  I, and virtually everyone else I knew, had been both wrong and silly this whole time?  Ouch.  But The Elements of Style is famously curmudgeonly (see my earlier entry on the topic); this prohibition, slightly revised, could just as easily apply to behind-the-times opinions on things plenty of things: “Although marriage in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable or even useful to many homosexuals, it offends the sensibilities of Anita Bryant, who does not like to see the meaning of marriage dulled or eroded.”

So was there any hope among forward-thinkers?  I checked CMoS next; surely that was more up-to-date than something written by people who died 67 and 28 years ago, respectively.  The sixteenth edition (5.220) states, “The old meaning of the word ‘in a hopeful manner’) seems unsustainable; the newer meaning (‘I hope’ or ‘it is to be hoped’) seems here to stay. But many careful writers deplore the new meaning.”  CMoS was more diplomatic, but with a nod to White’s original phrasing, it still implied that I could be classed with careless writers.

I kept searching, though.  And as with any other grammatical debate, descriptivists have an opinion, and it’s just as curmudgeonly as that of the prescriptivists, in its own way.  Last year, Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist and contributor to the excellent Chronicle of Higher Education blog Lingua Franca, wrote a resounding critique of the critics.  In “Hopefully: Five Decades of Foolishness,” he lambasts prescriptivists and makes a strong argument for many historical parallels in the development of English, including the use of “necessarily,” “clearly,” “possibly,” and “obviously.”  Victory for me!  Unless you’re so naïve as to assume that CMoS and Stunk and White are somehow more meaningful than some blog . . .

If nothing else, my little adventure with “hopefully” proves that if you google hard enough, you can find someone who agrees with you on anything.  However, since you are all educated writers and readers of the English language, I’m eager to hear my readers’ positions on this picayune but passion-inspiring issue.


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