solar system Next post: Who’s in charge of the English language?

The language of jazz Previous Post: Gutbucket, hamfatter, and chops: the language of jazz


Is it OK to use ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb?

This past week saw a small explosion of anguished queries and dire proclamations in a number of newspaper headlines. “Is This the End of Proper Grammar?” asked the New York Times, and, not to be outdone, the Minnesota Daily trumpeted that the “AP Stylebook seeks to destroy the American way of life”. An article in the Washington Post began with the pronouncement “The barbarians have done it”.

What nefarious plot had the Associated Press launched this time? Were they conspiring to ban all verbs derived from Spanish? Had they decided that the Pledge of Allegiance violates some hitherto unknown grammatical rule and should be changed?

No, it was a sin that, at least in the eyes of a small yet vocal group, was far more dastardly – the acceptance of hopefully when used as a sentence adverb. That is to say, the AP Stylebook no longer considers the use of hopefully to mean ‘it is hoped’ (as opposed to the less common meaning of ‘in a hopeful manner’) to be a sin worthy of stoning.

If you follow language politics at all it is very likely that you’ve heard of this dust-up, and I won’t go into all the details again. Arnold Zwicky recently posted a fine explanation of the (surprisingly recent) origins of the hopefully imbroglio – opposition to this particular sentence adverb appears to have picked up steam about 40 years ago, even though, as Zwicky points out, the use is considerably older; Oxford dictionaries now date the earliest citation for the adverb used in this manner to 1702. And for further information Catherine Soanes had an excellent post here a few months ago on the ins and outs of how to use and misuse hopefully.

There is very likely nothing one can say to a traditionalist that will change his or her mind about the impermissibility of this usage, but there is no reason not to try – the natural progression of language change will continue apace regardless, and words will change their meaning. And since there is no amount of hand-wringing or scolding on the part of the traditionalists that will change the now-predominant meaning of this word, I have a suggestion for those people who are bemoaning the acceptance of hopefully: find a new word to protest.

Other bones of contention

If you really have a talent for linguistic originalism, you can easily one-up the other language sticklers who are complaining about the ‘new’ meaning of a word. You could write furious letters to newspapers whenever they use decimate to mean ‘destroy a large part of’, or even if it’s used to mean ‘to kill one of every ten’ (since the original meaning in English in the 17th century was ‘to tithe’). Or you could bitterly bemoan those people who insist on using impact as a verb, and also inveigh against those use it as a noun, given that its first use in our language (in the 16th century) was as an adjective, meaning ‘impacted’. The truly adventurous could battle against the pernicious, johnny-come-lately uses of literally, since the actual first meaning of literal in English had nothing whatsoever to do with figurative or non-figurative, but instead referred to the letters of the alphabet.

You’ll have no more success with these words than you did with hopefully, but if you’re passionate about words retaining their original sense, and committed to complaining about semantic drift, it will provide you with countless hours of frustrated entertainment. Bear in mind, though, that you will find all of the above senses in Oxford dictionaries as their approach to lexicography is descriptive and not prescriptive. So they describe words as they are actually used, rather than prescribe how words should be used.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.