The Word 'Hopefully' Is Here To Stay, Hopefully

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Geoff Nunberg, the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air, is the author of the book The Years of Talking Dangerously.

There was something anticlimactic to the news that the AP Stylebook will no longer be objecting to the use of "hopefully" as a floating sentence adverb, as in, "Hopefully, the Giants will win the division." It was like seeing an obituary for someone you assumed must have died around the time that Hootenanny went off the air.

But these usage fixations have a tenacious hold. William Safire once described the "hopefully" rule as the litmus test that separated the language snobs from the language slobs. And the rule still has plenty of fans, to judge from the 700 comments on The Washington Post's story about the AP's decision.

That floating "hopefully" had been around for more than 30 years in respectable venues when a clutch of usage critics, including Theodore Bernstein and E.B. White, came down on it hard in the 1960s. Writers who had been using it up to then said their mea culpas and pledged to forswear it. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications. The poet Phyllis McGinley called it an abomination and said its adherents should be lynched; and the historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it "the most horrible usage of our times" — a singular distinction in the age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."

You wouldn't want to take the critics' hysteria at face value. A usage can be really, really irritating, but that's as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused "hopefully" or "literally" makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that — what it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.

Of course, even if you find the tone of these complaints histrionic, you can often sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing "enormity" with "enormousness," or "disinterested" with "uninterested." It doesn't herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.

But the fixation with "hopefully" is different from those others. For one thing, the word itself is so utterly inconsequential — is that the best you've got? And then there's no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it's a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick called it) that isn't attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker's attitude. But floating modifiers are mother's milk to English grammar — nobody objects to using "sadly," "mercifully," "thankfully" or "frankly" in exactly the same way.

Or people complain that "hopefully" doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping. But neither does "It is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a "natural" substitute. That's what usage fetishism can drive you to — you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can't hear what it's really saying. The fact is that "I hope that" doesn't mean the same thing that "hopefully" does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction. I'm comfortable saying, "I hope I survive to 105" — it isn't likely, but hey, you never know. But it would be pushing my luck to say, "Hopefully, I'll survive to 105," since that suggests it might actually be in the cards.

So why did critics decide to turn this useful little adverb into the era's biggest bugaboo? Well, you could argue that the very unreasonableness of the objections to "hopefully" helps make the rule an efficient badge of belonging. No one could simply guess the rule. Somebody who came to "hopefully" armed only with a keen ear for English grammar and style would have no way of knowing that anybody had a problem with it. You can only know about it if you're the sort of person who reads usage guides or who has tea with others who do. It's not enough just to be literate; you have to have pretensions to being one of the literati.

That helps to explain the curious persistence of the fetish. Since 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary has been sending surveys about usage questions to a panel of well-known writers and editors. (I worked with them on this for a number of years in my capacity as chair of the panel.) Over time, the panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated," or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." In 1969, only about half the panelists agreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.

The prejudice against "hopefully" will no doubt survive, zombie-style, among the scribbling classes for quite some time. But it's the last of its breed. People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity. Safire was the last guru who was invested with that kind of authority. But he actually came round to accepting the floating "hopefully" early on. So should all the rest of us. There will be grousing from the defiant one-percenters. But hopefully, my dear, we won't give a damn.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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