‘Hopefully’: Five Decades of Foolishness

In the annals of prescriptivist poppycock, a century is not very long, and a development spanning only 50 years from beginning to end counts as speedy. Let me describe one such incident, which concerns a small and very natural syntactic change in the use of a single adverb.

Many adverbs are used as manner adjuncts: He saw her clearly uses clearly as a modifier specifying the manner of the seeing. Some are used as what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls modal adjuncts, necessarily and possibly being the most basic and familiar ones. Clearly happens to have both a manner use and a modal use: Clearly he saw her is an example of the latter (modal adjuncts are often placed at the beginning of the clause; notice that this sentence doesn’t comment on the clarity of the glimpse, it says that given the evidence it’s indubitable that he saw her).

Nobody worries about these two uses of clearly living side by side. Nor does it bother anybody to live with the similar duality of obviously (compare He was flirting with her too obviously, which comments on the manner of the flirting, and He was obviously flirting with her, which doesn’t).

The 1960s saw an increase in the frequency of modal-adjunct use for another adverb: hopefully. Alongside They’ll wait hopefully (“They’ll wait with hope in their hearts”), it became increasingly popular to use sentences like Hopefully they’ll wait (“It is to be hoped that they’ll wait”).

This unremarkable little piece of linguistic evolution might have gone unnoticed, if the aging usage specialist Wilson Follett had not bristled. It is “un-English and eccentric” to use the word that way, he asserted dogmatically (Modern American Usage: A Guide, Hill & Wang, New York, 1966, Page 170), even though (as he said) the German equivalent hoffentlich is fine in modal-adjunct use.

Follett was dead by 1963 (his posthumous usage book was completed by Jacques Barzun and others), but he left a legacy: By the late 1960s, using hopefully as a modal adjunct was widely taken to be a grammatical sin. In 1972, E. B. White jumped on the bandwagon. He altered his revision of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style by adding a paragraph of self-contradictory and absurdly overwritten rant about hopefully. (Strunk never mentioned hopefully. Nor did White mention it in the 1959 edition, but his flailing second-edition paragraph is kept in all subsequent editions; see Page 48 of the fourth.)

For a few years, battles raged and peevers fumed. But the opposition peaked when disco was young, and Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra were hot. By 1979, William Safire had accepted the modal adjunct use of hopefully (his friend James J. Kilpatrick called him a “lousy quitter”). The dispute was basically over. In 1985 the Prince of Wales used hopefully as a modal adjunct in public (and I assume I can take the usage of the British royal family to have at least some potential relevance to the question of what is grammatical in contemporary Standard English).

With truly extreme caution, the AP Style Guide nonetheless waited a decent further interval: Its editors let more than a quarter of a century go by before they finally risked accepting what had now been normal Standard English usage for a lifetime. On April 17, 2012, they announced correctly that the modal-adjunct use of hopefully is not a grammatical error.

And people acted as if the sky was falling. “The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland,” wrote an overheated (and since then, overquoted) Monica Hesse in The Washington Post on April 18. (Perhaps she wrote ironically, but it doesn’t look like it.)

Barbarians? A single additional use of a single adverb undergoes a tiny expansion in its uses, fully in line with normal developments in the history of English syntax. No threat of ambiguity arises (I have never seen a case in which it was in doubt whether hopefully was intended as a manner adjunct or a modal adjunct). And when AP makes a small move, decades late, toward acceptance of an easily accessible fact about how English speakers employ a word, it means our language is being reduced to a “wasteland”?

It’s an odd field to be in, English grammar. And I must admit, I’m having that beam-me-up-Scotty feeling again.

Note added 2:20 p.m.: Monica Hesse has kindly emailed me to say that she was being sarcastic. Fair enough (I’m finding it hard to tell the genuine outrage from the parody these days); but she has plenty of readers who take her seriously. One of them wrote: “This is sad. Words’ meaning can change over time, but should not through ignorance or laziness. As goes the language, so goes civilization. I imagine we’ll be seeing that loose can be properly substituted for lose because that’s what everyone is doing. Soon, no-one will understand each other because there will be no standards at all.” Civilization under threat! And that was apparently written in full seriousness.

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