The Associated Press, normally only the conveyor of news, made headlines itself earlier this month.
The news was not exactly earth-shaking, unless you are the kind of person who storms out of a restaurant because the menu says “Kid’s under 5 eat free.”
The AP made the news by throwing in the towel on the adverb “hopefully” as it is used a million times a day in ordinary speech and informal writing. This was news because the AP Stylebook — described in one newspaper story as “venerable,” in another as the “bible of usage” — is so widely consulted that a surrender there seems to signal the end of the battle.
I used to care about the misuse of “hopefully,” mostly because my professors at the University of Montana journalism school cared about it deeply. The word meant “in a hopeful manner,” not, they would tell us in tones of mild outrage, “we hope” or “it is to be hoped.”
Because my understanding of the finer points of grammar was rather shaky, I latched onto specific injunctions like this with the passion of the newly converted religionist.
These same professors, so brilliant in other respects, harbored the most confounding prejudices against many words and phrases. We were not supposed to use “over” for “more than,” we had better know that “ensure” had not the same meaning at all as “insure,” and God help the student unwary enough to confuse “compose” with “comprise.”
A break with orthodoxy
I started to flirt with heresy early in my career, when I encountered colleagues who had adopted prejudices I had never heard of and could not begin to fathom. An editor in Butte used to insist that we never use the phrase “hold a meeting.”
“How can you ‘hold’ a meeting,” he asked me, cupping his hands as if preparing to catch water from a faucet. He looked at me sagaciously when he asked the question, as if the clarity of the illustration put the point beyond dispute.
I asked him where he had ever learned that words had only one meaning.
“I suppose it is impossible to catch a cold, throw a party or pitch a fit,” I said. “Or even, more to the point, to hold an opinion.”
He ordered me back to work, and the ban on “hold a meeting” remained in force.
It wasn’t just fussy professors and editors who were so adamant about “hopefully.” The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, which includes comments from a distinguished panel of experts on contentious points of style and usage, devoted a page and a half to “hopefully.”
In that discussion, the writer and poet Phyllis McGinley said the word, “so used,” was “an abomination and its adherents should be lynched.”
Rather extreme, don’t you think? Her view seems to have been shared by A.B. Guthrie Jr., also on the Harper usage panel and possibly the best writer Montana has yet produced.
“I have sworn eternal war on this bastard adverb,” he wrote.
A serious business
So you can see it is no light matter, this business of choosing the right word. But I still don’t understand why we can use words like “frankly,” “naturally,” “arguably” and “interestingly” in the same position in a sentence as we would use “hopefully,” and no one would bat an eye.
Wilson Follett, a Gibraltar of American usage, called “hopefully” “un-English and eccentric,” and he apparently thought it was brought over to English by “hack translators” encountering the German word “hoffentlich.”
But Follett also also says German “is blessed” with the word, implying that there was a need for an English equivalent, something less clunky than “it is to be hoped.”
Did he suppose that God handed “hoffentlich” to the Germans on Mount Sinai? It had to had come from somewhere — perhaps lifted centuries ago from a related language by hack translators. That is all English speakers have done. They molded their language to supply an obvious need.
It is not merely a mistake, like substituting “infer” for “imply” or even “sorrowfully” for “regrettably,” a mistake cited by Follett. I’m glad the Miss Grundys of the world fought so hard to exclude “hopefully” from polite company. Coinages and altered meanings need to be opposed so that not every vogue word is preserved, only the ones that prove indispensable.
I think “hopefully” has passed the test. And if a Miss Grundy should scold me and tell me I’m wrong, I would say to her, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”