I have a piece airing on "Fresh Air" today on hopefully. I recorded it about a month ago and it has been sitting in the can since then, so I didn't have the opportunity to profit from the observations made by Mark in his recent posts here, here and here; if I had, I would have mentioned his points about the changing frequency of the word, among other things, and some of the points made by Arnold in a one-stop-shopping post at his blog. I simply described the usage as "floating hopefully," so as not to tax the radio audience's limited patience for grammatical pilpul. Mostly, I wanted to stress a couple of things that seem to me to make hopefully sui generis in the canon of linguistic infractions.
Start with its elevation to a shibboleth and the overwrought tenor of the denunciations, so disproportionate to the imagined offense:
That floating hopefully had been around for more than thirty years in respectable venues when a clutch of usage critics including Theodore Bernstein and E. B. White came down on it hard in the 1960’s. 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?
After mentioning the wrong-headedness of the critics' objections, which Mark dispatches nicely, I go on to note that hopefully is not at all equivalent to the paraphrases that critics offer.
…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.
Anyway, 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” and "It is to be hoped that" don’t mean the same thing that hopefully does. The first just express 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.
(Actually, after I had taped the piece, I had the experience of asking my contractor when he thought they'd be through with the bathroom remodel, and he answsered, "We hope by the end of June." I thought to myself, gee, I wish he'd said "Hopefully by the end of June," which to me would have conveyed more confidence in that outcome.)
The mystery is why everybody decided to jump on hopefully at this time. Mark shows that the word had become more common, and that's certainly part of it, but increasing frequency alone wouldn't have been sufficient to make it so thunderously and universally reviled. One thing that occurred to me is that the very capriciousness of the rule might have played a role:
…the very baselessness of those objections makes them an ideal badge of belonging. Somebody who came to the adverb hopefully armed only with a logical mind and an ear for English grammar and style would have absolutely no way of guessing that anybody had a problem with it. You can only know about this if you’re the sort of person who reads usage guides or who hangs out with others who do. Objecting to hopefully doesn’t mark you off just as being literate; it says that you have pretensions to being one of the literati.
That may explain why the objectors have actually gotten more adamant as the cause gets more hopeless. Since 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary has been sending surveys about usage questions to a panel of around 150 well-known writers, editors and scholars. For the most part, they’ve grown more tolerant about the old usage strictures like using aggravating to mean irritating or to using dilemma when there are more than two choices. Hopefully is the one usage that has gone the other way—in 1969 only a bit more than half the panelists objected to it; thirty years later it was unacceptable to 80 percent.
I think the point about the literati is correct–one striking thing about this rule is that it doesn't come up a lot in the enumerations of pet peeves that fill the comments whenever someone raises a matter of grammar in the media; it's a fetish of copy-editors, journalists, and writers more than of general public purism. (What the repetitiveness of those lists shows, among other things, is that people don't have a clear idea what "pet" means here.) But even then, the mere fact that the objections to a recently popular usage are groundless doesn't quite explain why it should become the focus of general obloquy. In any case, I agree with Mark that Garner's proposal that one avoid the usage out of deference to the snoots betrays the intellectual pusillanimity of the "don't make trouble" school of grammatical counsel, which can only tarnish any credit it might have among serious people:
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 of us. There will be grousing from the defiant one-percenters. But hopefully, my dear, we won't give a damn.