Why "Hopefully"?

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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.



17 Comments

  1. KevinM said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    "Overwrought denunciations, disproportionate to the imagined offense" Fair enough. But may I suggest it as a motto for the banner at the top of this blog? Please, I kid.

    “I’m Ken and I’ll be your waitperson for tonight.”
    Even that is better than the common opening gambit: "Will you be wanting something to drink tonight?" The answer to the question as phrased is certainly "yes" (I'm a non-camel mammal). But the pertinent question is whether I want something to drink now.

  2. Rubrick said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    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.

    You, sir, rock.

  3. SlideSF said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

    "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."

    The observation about a difference in tone is correct, but in some cases the word "hopefully" can mean just the opposite of what you say. I would rather my contractor say "We hope to have this done by July", because that would give me cause to think that it might actually be completed by then. If he told me "Hopefully, it would be done by July", I would think that there wasn't a chance in hell that my deck or whatever would be done before the end of summer. It's as if he's relying on some power greater than his own ability to get the job done. It almost sounds wistful.

    So, whereas "I hope x" implies a wish in a tone-neutral sort of way, I think "hopefully" is more heavily weighted either for or against x actually happening.

  4. Copyeditingtheweb said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    "People will always have their crochets"

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    " it's a fetish of copy-editors, journalists, and writers more than of general public purism."

    There have been so many similar putdowns of copyeditors in recent posts and comments that I think it's time someone came to their defense.

    I have been a copyeditor at times and at other times I have been on the other side of the desk, so to speak, as a writer benefiting from the work of a copyeditor, so I hope I know a fair amount about the job.

    A copyeditor's primary job is not to pick nits; it's to ensure that a given piece of writing is as clear and as readable as it can be. Any good copyeditor works toward that end.

    Yes, part of the job is to pick nits, but they aren't usually nits of the copyeditor's choice. As a copyeditor at five newspapers, for a couple of book publishing companies, and currently for a physics journal, I've enforced a lot of style rules that I disagreed with entirely. But, in that part of the job, a copyeditor functions like a policeman or a sports official, not making the rules but simply enforcing them. Railing at the copyeditor for obeying the stylebook is like yelling at an umpire for invoking the infield fly rule.

    I have, at times, campaigned to change a style rule that I thought was silly, often in company with other copyeditors, but I've never been involved in a successful campaign. The rules are not typically made by copyeditors, but by people higher up the chain of command, usually older (and older-fashioned) people chained by tradition.

    In the past, two questions have been raised in this forum: Why should a stylebook even exist? Who would even notice any inconstencies?

    There are simple answers to both questions. A stylebook saves precious time. A copyeditor who knows the stylebook can add or remove hyphens, change capital letters to lowercase and vice versa, and make all the other nit-picking decisions quickly and, almost literally, without thought. This leaves more time for the primary function, actually editing the copy to make it more readable.

    And there are a lot of people out there who will notice inconsistencies. Those people tend to be better educated, wealthier, and generally more influential than the average reader. They'll do more than notice; with curmudgeonly glee. they'll point out inconsistencies to the managing editor or the executive editor or the publisher during a round of golf or an after-dinner drink at the country club.

    So a stylebook makes a copyeditor's job a bit simpler and, perhaps even more important, it also makes life more comfortable for those far above the copyeditor in the publishing hierarchy.

  6. Avi said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    I would like to point out that misuse of "literally" is another beast entirely.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Avi, you might enjoy some light reading.

  8. KathrynM said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

    Ralph Hickok, thank you–a useful bit of perspective, although I suspect none of the folk at Language Log Plaza actually despise copy editors. But for those of us on the outside looking in, that's an educational description of the process!

  9. Brett said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    I want to point something out about the mentioned distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested." While I generally observe the same distinction as Geoff Nunberg, it is not a historical distinction that is gradually dying out. In fact, not too long ago, the "preferred" distinction between the two words was exactly the reverse of what it is now.

    There have long been these two separate words for the opposite of "interested." There have also been two major meanings of "interest": 1. financial interest and 2. intellectual interest. While the second meaning seems to be much more important now, the first meaning was the predominant one two hundred years ago. Then, just as now, both "uninterested" and "disinterested" were used to refer to the a lack of either of the two kinds of interest. However, in both time periods, the more standard negative, "uninterested" was preferentially used to to refer to a lack of the more commonly referred to kind of interest. So in the early nineteenth century, among those people who observed a distinction, "uninterested" meant not having a financial interest (or, more generally, some other kind of stake) in a matter. "Disinterested" was then reserved for the secondary meaning of interest. Since the relative frequencies of the two meanings of interest have switched places, the preferred meanings of "disinterested" and "uninterested" have switched over time as well.

  10. David Y. said,

    May 30, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    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.

    Missed opportunity to say: "…but does it literally make them want to put their shoe through the television screen?"

  11. Michael said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 3:22 am

    Thanks for introducing PILPUL into this blog. Though there are some 55k hits on Google, I've found only 2 previous occurrences on LL, both from the audience.

  12. Hamish said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 7:45 am

    May I suggest the use of "with any luck" as a useful substitute for those who disdain the use of "hopefully" in this context? As Geoff points out, the standard replacements seem lacking.

  13. RP said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    Hamish – you'll just have to hope that when you say "With any luck, the parcel will arrive soon", the peevers don't ask, "How can a parcel have luck?".

  14. languagehat said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    I would like to thank Ralph Hickok for his eloquent defense and explanation of my own profession of copyediting. We're not out to gut your prose, honest!

  15. Jonathon said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    "Avoid[ing] the usage out of deference to the snoots betrays the intellectual pusillanimity of the 'don't make trouble' school of grammatical counsel."

    Bingo. It's effectively the same as simply telling people that the usage is wrong, but with the addition of weaseling out of responsibility for the choice. I blogged about this line of reasoning here.

  16. » Hopefully I’ll Come Up With Some of My Own Content One of These Days The Blue Candle Society said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    [...] in the meantime, I just had to link to this post in Language Log, which is the latest in a series of posts on "hopefully", just because [...]

  17. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this discussion of the use of “hopefully” said,

    June 4, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    [...] perfectly fine to begin a sentence with hopefully. And it turns out I'm in good company.  Prof. Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who blogs at Language Log, recently posted on the unfounded disapproval of the use of hopefully as a general modifier at the [...]

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