Blog Excerpts

The AP Throws in the Towel on "Hopefully"

The big news in the copy editing world this week was the revelation that the Associated Press Stylebook would no longer hold the line against the long-stigmatized use of "hopefully" as a sentence adverb to mean "It is hoped." The announcement elicited some strong reactions both pro and con. Here is a roundup of some of the online responses to the stylebook change.

Monica Hesse, "AP's approval of ‘hopefully' symbolizes larger debate over language" (Washington Post, Apr. 17)

The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly — she continues to fight! — by including a cautionary italics phrase, "usage problem," next to the heretical definition.

Then, on Tuesday morning, the venerated AP Stylebook publicly affirmed (via tweet, no less) what it had already told the American Copy Editors Society: It, too, had succumbed. "We now support the modern usage of hopefully," the tweet said. "It is hoped, we hope."

Previously, the only accepted meaning was: "In a hopeful manner." As in, " ‘Surely you are joking,' the grammarian said hopefully."

This is no joking matter.

"We batted this around, as we do a lot of things, and it just seemed like a logical thing to change," says David Minthorn, the deputy standards editor of the Associated Press. "We're realists over at the AP. You just can't fight it."

John McIntyre, "Hopefully, someone might learn something" (Baltimore Sun, Apr. 18)

Language is precisely what its speakers make of it. In Anglo-Saxon, every noun had gender, and the rabble of illiterate peasants who ignore the rules of grammar dropped that in the creation of Middle English. It is a rule in English, or was, that you is a plural pronoun. Everyone who uses it as a singular instead of thou or thee is violating the rules.

It is melancholy to reflect how many people, some of them entrusted with the instruction of the young, have not taken the trouble to inform their opinions. Anyone who troubles to look into Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage will discover a page and a half on hopefully, with explanation that it had a pedigree as a sentence adverb before falling out of favor in the 1960s, and that there is no grammatical objection to using it as a sentence adverb. Anyone who consults Bryan Garner, the prescriptivist's prescriptivist, will discover that he has been saying for years that the objection to hopefully is a lost cause and that the usage is well established in the language, though he doesn't much care for it himself.

Here's what it comes down to. Vogue usages tend to irritate purists, because they are popular with the Wrong People. Vogue usages tend to fade away as the Wrong People are drawn to some shiny new thing, but some of them lodge in the language. Contact as a verb was scorned by purists in the 1940s and 1950s but is perfectly innocuous today. It appears to be the case than once the tribe of Harrumphers shuffles off to bliss eternal, hopefully will look considerably less catastrophic.

You don't like it? Don't use it. But you don't get to conflate your idiosyncratic linguistic preferences with the Law and the Prophets.

Doug Ward, "A 50-year tug of war over ‘hopefully' ends with a shrug" (KUediting, Apr. 18)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says use of hopefully to mean we hope or it is hoped was rare until the early 1960s, with use accelerating from 1964 on. Criticism of its misuse accelerated just as steadily.

Among the critics was Theodore Bernstein, assistant managing editor of The New York Times. In The Careful Writer (1965), he said hopefully was commonly misused. By 1971, though, even Bernstein had begun to soften his stance. In Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, he wrote prophetically:

The word is in common use and perhaps in reputable use and one wonders whether attempts to resist it are not exercises in futility.

A few years later, in Dos, Don'ts & Maybes of English Usage, Bernstein compared hopefully to words like fortunately, luckily, regrettably and happily, saying:

To be quite honest, a decade ago I was on the side of the objectors, but in recent years additional thought about the matter has changed my mind.

Others weren't swayed. The 1976 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage called on reporters and editors to restrict use of hopefully to "in a hopeful manner."

In Words on Words (1980), John Bremner called hopefully "a knee-jerk word like yunno." Four years later, the Harbrace College Handbook (10th edition) called use of hopefully "still questionable for I hope or it is hoped." By 1994 (12th edition), the entry for hopefully had disappeared.

The 1999 edition of the Times stylebook softened its stance on hopefully, though it said use of hopefully to mean it is hoped would very likely "irritate readers."

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, "'Hopefully' Gets Upgrade at AP" (Business Writing blog, Apr. 18)

This may not seem like a big deal, but to many linguistic sticklers it is the end of the world of correctness.

Although I don't see its use as the world's end, I am not going to use hopefully for "it is hoped." Why? Because too many old-school grammarians will think I don't know better. As Bryan Garner says of hopefully in Garner's Modern American Usage, "If you use it in the newish way [as "it is hoped"], a few readers will tacitly tut-tut you."

Edward Tenner, "How Language Is Like Fashion: The Case of 'Hopefully'" (The Atlantic, Apr. 18)

The ban on the optimistic hopefully has always been one of the least defensible taboos. After all, to my knowledge German grammar authorities never condemned the cognate hoffentlich, though I'm sure the mavens would counter that the French language uses double negatives all the time. They might be perfectly logical and understandable in English, too, but they still sound like words used for effect, as ain't is now. 

The mavens-vs-linguists controversy reflects one of the great trends of the last hundred years, the weakening of authority by diffusion. Professionalization probably reached a peak as a movement in the years just before the First World War. When I was reading a historical medical journal on line for another project, though, I found a growing alarm by some physicians that their patients were emboldened to challenge their advice, behavior much rarer before the War. Language mavens seeks authority for themselves, but they also question the validity of academic linguists in appearing to condone just about anything grammatical, and defend middle-class values against campus relativism. Some linguists, for their part, relish the role of freeing the populace from the oppression of what they consider the false logic of the mavens.

In the end, usage really isn't related to grammar or logic but is a realm of fashion. And this cuts both ways. Just because something is, linguistically, grammatical English doesn't mean it's expedient to use it. It's like wearing jeans or a suit. Clothing tastes, like grammar instruction, were once rigidly prescriptive, too. The tragedy of the General Slocum, which caught fire in New York's East River in 1904, was compounded by the heavy woolen clothing that helped doom many passengers in the water—though the excursion took place on June 15. Dress codes, even in luxury restaurants, are in flux.

What this means is that in language and in clothing, there is no single standard any more, except at publications that rely steadfastly on a style guide and have the resources and skilled copy editors to enforce it. Often the issue is not the garment or the word, but how the wearer or user carries it off. But just as we no longer have columnists with the broad influence of Walter Lippmann, neither mavens nor academic linguists have given us so far a master arbiter like the English writer Henry Watson Fowler. A battle appears won, but the conflict goes on.

Laura Moyer, "Hopefully, we can save our moral outrage for something important" (Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, The Red Pen blog, Apr. 18)

Even before AP pronounced it OK, I gave up policing "hopefully" at the beginning of sentences.

The most recent example that comes to mind is a headline in the Life section a couple of weeks ago: "Hopefully, child cannot tell a lie again." I was the copy editor that day. I thought about changing it. I decided not to, because I could not imagine a reader being confused by the construction.

There are real mistakes out there to correct. That is not a real mistake. I like to think that the mental energy I save on "hopefully" will come in handy sometime when I come across a big, hairy typo in a headline or a grammatical error that would truly cause confusion.

If I'm going to make an ass of myself, I want it to be about something that matters.

Clyde Haberman, "Is This the End of Proper Grammar? Hopefully Not" (New York Times, City Room blog, Apr. 19)

Unquestionably, quite a few authorities agree with the less restrictive view, including a batch of dictionaries and grammarians like Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, a husband-and-wife team that writes a blog called More than a year ago, they unqualifiedly endorsed the use of "hopefully" to modify an entire sentence and not just a specific word. It is a practice, they said, that goes back centuries.

Intriguingly, the new rule — "we feel we just can't hold back the tide," Mr. Minthorn said — is not the only recent change in the A.P. Stylebook.

Arguably, it is not even the most important. The stylebook frowns, for example on the use of "fracking" as shorthand for "hydraulic fracturing." It admonishes against applying "illegitimate" to a child of unmarried parents. "Islamist," it says, may "encompass a wide range of Muslims," from mainstream politicians to jihadis. And references to Nazi death camps established decades ago in, say, German-occupied Poland should describe them that way, and not with a phrase like "Polish death camps" — an unfortunate construction that mixes up "the location and the perpetrators."

Incidentally, "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," while acknowledging that "hopefully" is an adverb that "inflames passions," cites surveys showing that "large majorities" of writers and teachers cling to the more restrictive use. So does The Times, and no change is contemplated for now, said Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards.

Frankly, though, the newspaper's stylebook is not dogmatic on this score. As the new A.P. rule shows, times can change.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, "The audacity of 'hopefully'" (Salon, Apr. 19)

Maybe for some, the outrage over the new official recognition of "hopefully" is mere snobbery, but I suspect it's simple grief for grammar in general and its degradation in classrooms and newsrooms. There's a sense that rules are no longer being bent; they're never being learned in the first place. I want an AP Stylebook that I can flout, not one that throws up its hands because nobody cares about it any longer anyway. Language keeps evolving, and that's fine and natural. Yet as it does, I'll still gaze hopefully toward a world in which we battle over our words and our rules because we know them so well, and love them so much.

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Words on Probation
John McIntyre sees the new use of "hopefully" as having passed out of a probationary period.
Roy Blount, Jr. maintains the conservative position on the adverb "hopefully."