Monday, December 22, 2008

Hopefully, These Types Will Go Away

A reader of the Kansas City Star recently criticized the paper's use of the word "hopefully" as a sentence adverb meaning "it is to be hoped that" or "I hope." Like so many other tragically misinformed members of a certain generation, the reader believes that "hopefully" is only a manner adverb and that it means only "in a hopeful way." In other words, these people believe that "Hopefully, I'll see you tomorrow," is wrong, while "I will hopefully apply for the job" is right.

I wonder if that reader also knows the meaning of "For the love of freakin' Zeus, will you schmoes please remove your lips from the butt of your English teacher who died forty years ago and open a damn book?"

Here's what these people don't get: Usage dictates grammar. Usage also dictates word definitions. In fact, it is the very basis of word definitions.

I don't mean this in a partisan way. I mean that, quite literally, "a grammar" is a description of how people arrange words, and a dictionary is a formal documentation of how words are used.
Our very ideas of "right" and "wrong" grammar and usage are based not on whether some language czar has sanctioned something or forbidden it. They're based on what English users do. Again, that's not partisan. It's fact.

Nor is this some form of grammar anarchy reflecting an ideology in which nothing can be wrong. Some structures are ungrammatical. "Me wants you I visit," for example, is ungrammatical. It is inconsistent with the standards established by English users. There are many, many such things that can be labeled as "wrong."

But the "hopefully" in question isn't one of them. Dictionaries allow "Hopefully, I'll see you tomorrow." Strunk and White didn't. But, as I've said, Strunk wasn't writing for you and me, anyway (though they were happy to take our money and their copyright holders continue to).

It's hard to loosen a white-knuckle grip on comforting, rock solid ideas of right and wrong. I, for one, still cringe every time I hear "there's" before a plural. But that's no excuse for the the Kansas City Star reader who said that "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is "never okay ... no matter what."

Hopefully, these people will give it a rest.

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goofy said...

No, I think our ideas of "right" and "wrong" grammar and usage really are based on whether some language czar has sanctioned something or forbidden it. That seems to be what most people mean when they talk about right and wrong grammar.

June Casagrande said...

You're talking about the conventional wisdom on the subject, right? If so, I agree. And I think it all goes back to Generation Diagram -- the people who were taught both real grammar and silly myths.

Too many of them chose to perpetuate the silly myths ("it's wrong to use 'nauseous' to mean 'nauseated'") at the expense of the good stuff ("and this, kids, is what a prepositional phrase is").

They misrepresented grammar. They gave it a bad name. And now too many people think it's just nitpicky BS.

I copy and paste this blog over at where a reader pulled out the slippery slope argument. "If we let usage dictate grammar, next thing you know (insert your own example of grammar pandemonium here)."

I have a deep and personal contempt for fear-based non-thinking. "If we let gay people marry, next thing you know, elderberry farmers will be marrying hamsters and Michaael Jackson will be handing out engagement rings at Chuck E. Cheese."

Fear is no substitute for thinking stuff through.

(Actually, the basis of my feelings about fear-based decision making is pretty personal. Stuff like, "If I stop drinking, I just can't imagine how I'll ever feel happiness again." I learned the hard way that confronting fear head on is much better than letting it call the shots from some dark, unexplored corner of the mind. I realize that's way off topic, but to me, these things are related.)


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