Standing Around With My Finger in the Dike, Feeling Hopeful

Yes, I am trying to hold back a flood. And I’m a little annoyed with the AP Stylebook. As the Washington Post says:

The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly—she continues to fight!—by including a cautionary italics phrase, “usage problem,” next to the heretical definition. Then, on Tuesday morning [17 April 2012], the venerated AP Stylebook publicly affirmed (via tweet, no less) what it had already told the American Copy Editors Society: It, too, had succumbed. “We now support the modern usage of hopefully,” the tweet said.

You know what I’m talking about: sentences like Hopefully, that won’t happen (when what is meant is I hope that won’t happen or It is to be hoped that will not happen). Honestly? I can’t stand them; they sound clunky, inelegant. They sound, to my ear, like the writer doesn’t know how to write very well. A puppy can look hopefully at a toddler’s ice cream cone; one can answer the phone hopefully (particularly when one is half-expecting good news). But Hopefully we’ll get a break in the weather does not work for me.

I know, I know. But … the OED! Even my own favorite dictionary accepts the usage:

Main Entry: hope·ful·ly
Function: adverb
Date: 1593
1 : in a hopeful manner
2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope <hopefully the rain will end soon>
usage In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.

Whether you call it a “sentence adverb” (as Grammar Girl does), a “floating adverb” (Geoff Nunberg), or a disjunct—this certainly puts me in my place, doesn’t it! Nunberg, writing for NPR, says about complaints like this, “It doesn’t herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory” before he goes on to call the issue inconsequential. The fact is, language changes. Grammar changes. (The deputy standards editor at the Associated Press says, “We’re realists over at the AP. You just can’t fight it.” Or as this guy says, all you have to do is “wait until your brand of bad becomes acceptable.”) This is why dictionaries and style guides get updated—because language and grammar users have made a new usage common.

Common being the key word for me. I still don’t like it. And the style guide I use—The Chicago Manual of Style—waffles on this issue: “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.”

Like me. I believe if you stick to the fundamentals of writing you will produce clean, clear, graceful prose. I don’t mind if you use this new hopefully in dialogue (because that’s how people talk) but if I see it in your narrative I will suggest a change. It’s about elegant writing, in my opinion, and the modern usage of hopefully just isn’t.

Tweet: Hopefully: Just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean you have to!
Tweet: The modern usage of hopefully just isn’t graceful.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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8 Comments

  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    I feel the same way about “arguably.” It may be grammatically correct, but it’s imprecise and–I love how you put it–inelegant.

    • Jamie says:

      Oh yes, arguably is awful too. And elegance is always what I strive for. It doesn’t mean snooty. Just the basics done well. :)

  2. Well said, Jamie. I love the title of the post. And, like Sarah, I appreciate how you frame it around elegant writing.

  3. Sarah says:

    I loved reading this post. I cringe at the word as well. It is also unfortunate that I have used it on occasion. :(

    Reading this post had me scrambling through my manuscripts to find the cursed blight! I breathed a sigh of relief that there were only five instances in my 90,000 word manuscript.

    Dutifully edited and hopeful that this faux pas will not occur again. :)

    • Jamie says:

      LOL!!

      • Sarah says:

        Of course, then I realized I’ve committed another crime of writing passion…using THAT far too often.

        Breathe, Sarah, breathe. You can get through this.

        I’m new to the blogging world too. I’ve yet to read a blog that has helped me quite as much as yours. On pins and needles for your next post. :)

        • Jamie says:

          I’m so glad you like it! :) I post on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. So tonight’s the night!

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