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.


Two Stuffed Shirts Walk into a Bar: Strunk and White Want to Tell You What to Do (and Why to Ignore Them)

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

One of the funniest things about William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style is its occasional outmoded crotchetiness.  The book’s remarkable longevity—Strunk wrote the first version in the nineteen-teens, with revisions by White resulting in new editions in the fifties and seventies—means that in some ways it’s something of a time capsule.  I can’t complain about maxims like “do not break sentences in two” (rule of usage 6) and “omit needless words” (rule of usage 17), which I fervently hope will remain timeless.  But White’s 1979 “refurbishment” of the “Misused Words and Expressions” section contains some objections that contemporary readers might be bewildered by.

Facility. Why must jails, hospitals, and schools suddenly become ‘facilities’?” (p. 46, 4th ed.)

-ize.  Do not coin verbs by adding this tempting suffix.  Many good and useful verbs do end in -ize. . . . But there is a growing list of abominations: containerize, prioritize, finalize, to name three. . . . Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?” (p. 50)

Noun used as verb.  Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs.  Not all are bad, but all are suspect.”  White’s examples include gift, host, chair, and debut. (p. 54)

Offputting.  Ongoing.  Newfound adjectives, to be avoided because they are inexact and clumsy. . . . Select instead a word whose meaning is clear.” (p. 54)

Call me postmodern, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world in which facility is an annoyance and prioritize is an “abomination.”  The word ongoing strikes me as pretty innocuous.  And frankly, before I read this, I didn’t even know that the verb “to host” hadn’t existed just as long as the noun “host” had.

The Elements of Style‘s apparent stuffiness underscores the limitations of the prescriptivist philosophy.  Prescriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on set systems and ideals of correct language.  Descriptivism, on the other hand, focuses on actual usage in the real world.  As prescriptivists, Strunk and White’s inflexibility dooms them to irrelevance as the language evolves.

Personally, I fall somewhere in between the two extremes.  One of English’s most delightful aspects is its adaptability—giving rise its gorgeous creativity, its intricate and irrational ramification, its trenchant wit.  Why would we let frowns and primness and rules stand in the way of all that?  On the other hand, descriptivists’ critiques of prescriptivists often boil down to “What snobs!  Everyone should stop panicking and just do what they want!”  This anarchist’s approach to language loses sight of the fact that sometimes grammar rules, along with modern conveniences like stop signs and  “Ten Items or Fewer” check-outs, clarify while they bind.*

So if you’re a writer or an editor, join me in raising a glass to Strunk and White’s grouchy-old-man approach to English—while at the same time ignoring their more offputting rules.

*Also, admittedly, if everyone stopped believing in “proper” grammar I’d be out of a job.

Grammar Nazis 1

Welcome to a new series: humor about grammar nazis.  More soon!

That Mitchell and Webb Look is one of my favorite British shows.  Here’s their take on the bad end that grammar nazis must always come to.

And, before you ask, nonliteral or metaphorical references to political organizations do not require capital letters (CMoS 8.65).