Hopefully, someone might learn something

April 18, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

In a New Yorker cartoon from thirty years ago, a man turns to another in a bar and asks belligerently, "Hopefullywise? Did I understand you to say hopefullywise?"

There you have the hopefully brouhaha encapsulated. The Wrong People, the sloppy, trendy vulgarians who tacked -wise indiscriminately onto adjectives were the same sort who would use hopefully as a sentence adverb. It's easy to identify the Wrong People: They belong to some group we like to look down on (advertising, say, or business people in general), they latch on to any linguistic fad that lumbers down the pike, they don't know their Latin, and they have no respect for The Rules. 

Last week the gray eminences of the Associated Press Stylebook announced at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society that the 2012 edition of the stylebook will acknowledge that hopefully, in the sense of "it is hoped" or "we hope" is unobjectionable.* A tweet to that effect has gone out, and the predictable howls of uninformed outrage are bellowed throughout the land.

The comments at JimRomenesko.com and his Facebook page are, I think, representative. 

Dan Kennedy, who professes journalism at Northeastern University, wrote, "This is an abomination. ... Illiteracy is not appreciated."

Victoria Camron: ‎" 'No!' she screamed, earnestly hoping she was imagining this horrendous news."

Millicent Fauntleroy wrote, "Where was the Little Dutch Boy when we needed him?"

There you go. Allow one trickle though the dike, and all Holland is lost. I haven't yet come across a "slippery slope" comment, but I am confident that they are out there. Leave one gap in the wall, and Constantinople falls to the Turks, &c., &c.

George Schwarz wrote, "Let's NEVER allow the use of 'that' for 'who.' Although it has become ubiquitous. I think we can thank Bill Gates and Micro$oft Word for this disaster."

(Actually, that for unknown persons or groups of persons has been standard English for centuries. And Jan Freeman has an amusing post on the contortions of Microsoft Word's efforts to enforce the very bogus rule that Mr. Schwarz endorses.)

Brian Voerding wrote, "At least 'over' isn't yet equivalent to 'more than'. Not all is lost."

Oh, but it is, Mr. Voerding, and long since. I just haven't been able to nudge AP toward sense on this one.

Laura Berman, though unwittingly, penetrates to the heart of the matter: "When enough people fail to learn the rule, the mistake becomes the rule. This is change but not progress."

Language is precisely what its speakers make of it. In Anglo-Saxon, every noun had gender, and the rabble of illiterate peasants who ignore the rules of grammar dropped that in the creation of Middle English. It is a rule in English, or was, that you is a plural pronoun. Everyone who uses it as a singular instead of thou or thee is violating the rules.

It is melancholy to reflect how many people, some of them entrusted with the instruction of the young, have not taken the trouble to inform their opinions. Anyone who troubles to look into Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage will discover a page and a half on hopefully, with explanation that it had a pedigree as a sentence adverb before falling out of favor in the 1960s, and that there is no grammatical objection to using it as a sentence adverb. Anyone who consults Bryan Garner, the prescriptivist's prescriptivist, will discover that he has been saying for years that the objection to hopefully is a lost cause and that the usage is well established in the language, though he doesn't much care for it himself.

Here's what it comes down to. Vogue usages tend to irritate purists, because they are popular with the Wrong People. Vogue usages tend to fade away as the Wrong People are drawn to some shiny new thing, but some of them lodge in the language. Contact as a verb was scorned by purists in the 1940s and 1950s but is perfectly innocuous today. It appears to be the case than once the tribe of Harrumphers shuffles off to bliss eternal, hopefully will look considerably less catastrophic.

You don't like it? Don't use it. But you don't get to conflate your idiosyncratic linguistic preferences with the Law and the Prophets.

 

*With an unaccustomed mixture of humility and pride, I can point out that David Minthorn and Darrell Christian credited me with prodding them into the action.

 

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