Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hopefully

Hopefully was one of the first words that I learned never to use, thanks to a rant in Edwin Newman's hilarious book Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?. (The answer to the titular question, according to Newman, is "Yes." And it's not just America; Britain is also crushing the English language underfoot.) Hopefully, when used as an adverb modifying the entire sentence, is simply an incorrect neologism, says Newman. It should be replaced with I hope. Strangely, he gave no argument beyond that for why that usage is incorrect, but he mocked it so heavily that I avoided that usage for years afterward.

Much later, it occurred to me to find out why hopefully is so wrong, considering how often it is used. Unfortunately, that's not as easy as it sounds. The American Heritage dictionary says "It is not easy to explain why critics dislike this use of hopefully." Merriam-Webster agrees: "the criticism [of hopefully] took no account of the grammar of adverbs." Actually, all of the authoritative language texts I consulted on this agree that the use of "hopefully" in the sense of "It is to be hoped" is entirely standard and grammatical.

So why is it still being corrected?

My first explanation is that the grammar community is retarded, in the literal sense of the word - it is slow to progress. It seems the protests against hopefully stem from the days when the word first began being used in this way, and frankly, nothing gets a group of grammar purists foaming at the mouth than a neologism. Luckily, the accusation that its ungrammatical is entirely unfounded.

"But how can you say that?" I imagine some purist is crying. "It is indefensible! It's a dangling modifier! It means 'in a hopeful manner' and nothing else! No other word is used that way!" If you are saying this, I have to ask if you were bothered by anything in the preceding paragraphs. How about my use of stangely, unfortunately, actually, or luckily? Think about it. They were used the same way that hopefully is in the contested sense. Bartleby agrees with me, saying "hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a shibboleth." (Incidentally - there I go again! - shibboleth is a delightfully colorful word. I should talk about it sometime.)

On a related note, in this list of non-errors, Paul Brians notes that "in English adjectives connected to sensations in the perceiver of an object or event are often transferred to the object or event itself." Thus, "a grateful shower of rain" or "a happy coincidence."

Neat, huh?

The final word: If you use the word hopefully to mean "It is to be hoped," then you are guaranteed some criticism. Just tell them that, luckily, you don't respond to threats.

Further reading:
World Wide Words's discussion of hopefully
Hopefully, Wistful No More

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Introduction

Welcome to "Janus Words," a blog concerned with correct usage of the English language. I plan to update about once or twice a week, answering reader questions. You can leave them as comments, or email me at red.m.coast at gmail.com.

Two different kinds of grammar exist. The first is called "descriptive," and merely describes the current usage. It does not give rules or suggestions on how language should be used. On the other hand is "prescriptive" grammar. It does lay down rules. In descriptive grammar, a split infinitive is often used by speakers and writers, no matter their education; in prescriptive grammar, split infinitives are an error.

A split exists among prescriptive grammarians. Some are language liberals, content to let the split infinite remain split. Some even want to get rid of the word "whom." Others are language conservatives, convinced that the road to hell is paved with double negatives. And the language liberals.

I feel that a balance has to be struck between these two extremes. It's too easy to simply stick to descriptive grammar. The view that nothing is incorrect is a tempting one. Even the basic English rule that a sentence must contain a subject and a verb in order to be a complete thought is often broken. Subjects are often omitted, as in Mark Twain's telegram "NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES." The verb is sometimes omitted in African-American parlance: "She at the grocery store right now?" And sometimes both are omitted, yet the remainder, called condescendingly a "fragment," still manages to contain what seems to be a complete thought. To the Batmobile!

On the other hand, to say that anything and everything does the English user a great disservice. Use the word "irregardless," and everyone might understand you, but they will also hold you in contempt. It's also essential to understand the forms of formal speech and writing, so that one can employ them at need.

Those who dispense with prescriptive grammar, unfortunately, are often both adamant and completely wrong. Your English teacher was most likely wrong. The language columnist in your local paper is probably wrong. Whoever wrote the usage guide that you just picked up is wrong. The lady who wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves was wrong. And sometimes even the dictionary is wrong.

I'm not a language authority. I can give you all the information I can find on a subject, and offer the best suggestion for usage. There is no right and wrong with language, but there is better and worse.