The battle over ‘hopefully’

May 08, 2012 03:09 pm

Well it’s the only thing I could do half right

And it’s turning out all wrong, Ma.

Look what they’ve done to my song. 

— Melanie

Could grammarians become archaic like the elevator operator, milkman, iceman, switchboard operator and key punch operator?

I wondered as much when the Associated Press recently sanctified the popular misuse of the adverb “hopefully” to mean “it is hoped” or “we hope.”

As Clyde Haberman of the New York Times put it, “From now on, the A.P. Stylebook — a bible of usage for multitudes of writers, editors and other species of word nerds — will recognize the legitimacy of the adverb ‘hopefully‘ as it is heard in everyday language, even if it makes a grammar stickler’s back teeth ache.”

“Hopefully” is, and always will be, an adverb and should describe a verb in a sentence. One can look up the street hopefully for the milkman because the word is there telling you something about the verb “looking.”  (Let’s not get into why anyone would be hopefully looking for a milkman in this day and age.)

I spent many years as a college English professor trying to teach students not to say, “Hopefully, it will rain today,” when, in fact, neither the “it” nor “rain” is hopeful. “I hope it rains today,” would do quite nicely, or, “It is to be hoped that it will rain today,” but, “it” can’t go around all willy-nilly hoping for anything.

But the battle may be over if the Associated Press concession to popular misuse catches on and spreads to other stylebooks such as the M.L.A. I have always liked having a style book to use when writing, and in my early career it was the A.P. Stylebook, then for many years the M.L.A. Stylebook, and now again the A.P. 

But I feel as my Catholic friends did many years ago when the church said they could eat meat on Fridays after having eschewed it their whole lives for what they assumed had been good reasons. 

And I feel a little like that elevator operator who is escorted to the Home for the Archaic  because fancy new machines that are fully automated have replaced him. And I have also started wondering what happened to all of those Linotype operators I knew when I was young, men (and a few women) who miraculously typed on big machines that made lines of type out of pots of molten lead.

That “hopefully” was an adverb and needed attachment to a verb was one of the few things from my lengthy education that had stuck. 

I am well aware that language changes with usage. “Pitiful” long ago came to mean “piteous” or “pitiable” because people attached it to the pitied. Literally, it means “full of pity,” just as “beautiful” means “fully of beauty.”

Let it go, Mike, let it go. 

Long ago the word “gossip” started to mean “nasty rumors” rather than its original “godparent.” The godparent’s (or gossip’s) original duty was to spread the good news of a child’s birth. Times change.

“Goodbye” would originally have been chocked full of apostrophes because it was a contraction for “God be with ye,” and I’m not bemoaning the loss of those apostrophes, am I?

They’ve dropped all punctuation from road signs in some European countries, and I did not take up placards to protest, though what effect must it have on little passengers spending their formative years looking out from the backseat at apostrophe-free road signs? 

There have actually been proponents (though please don’t tell the Associated Press) of abolishing the apostrophe completely. 

I think of my dear friend and former Shakespeare teacher Mary Bess with whom I used to drink beer occasionally (never to excess, of course) in pubs, and should she find at the bathroom that the sign on the door said simply “womens,” she would pull from her purse a Sharpie, which she carried for just such occasions, and add an apostrophe carefully between the “n” and “s.” As carefully as the iceman would chip you off a nice big chunk of ice or the switchboard operator would put you through to a real person to talk to.  

The correct usage of adverbs like “hopefully” and of apostrophes for possession and contraction, as the Melanie song said, is the only thing I can do half right, and it does seem to be turning out all wrong.

One can only hope (notice how easily I avoided saying “hopefully” here) that the Home for the Archaic doesn’t yet have a rocking chair between the iceman and switchboard operator with my name on it yet. 

If we give up the battle on “hopefully,” chaos may ensue.


Mike Shearer can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it