Hopefully, the complaining will stop now.

Several people emailed me links to this story this week:

AP’s Approval of ‘hopefully’ symbolizes larger debate over language

Since it’s received so much attention, I’ll preempt the planned topic for today and discuss hopefully instead.

The debate over the use of hopefully to mean “I hope” or “we hope” (or “it is hoped”) instead of the rigid and traditionally ‘correct’ “in a hopeful manner” has been going on for a long time. This despite the fact that the battle was effectively lost at least a generation ago: when I made it into the educational system during the 1970s (I’m an early Gen X-er), most teachers would correct, but only mildly; they seemed to know from practical experience that even then the tide of change was already unstoppable.

Now AP Style has finally been swept along by the wave. Pardon me for not getting too excited, but in this case it seems like the only reason AP wasn’t already floating along with everyone else is because they’d chosen to tie their boat to the dock.

As Hesse (the author of this Washington Post article) notes, AP is pretty much the only “authority” that still clung to this historical distinction. The major dictionaries – OED, AHD, Merriam-Webster – being primarily descriptivist (as they should be) have included this definition of hopefully for some time (with or without editorial comments about formality, usage problems, or audience perception). The most recent edition of the most widely-used style guide, Chicago, goes so far as to note that “[t]he old meaning of the word (‘in a hopeful manner’) seems unsustainable” (CMS 16, 5.220, p. 284). It’s worth nothing that they said exactly the same thing in the previous (15th) edition, published in 2003. (I haven’t been able to find earlier editions, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to discover that they’d already gone this way by the 14th edition, in ’93.)

Garner weighed in on this fairly early (in the first edition of DMAU, 1998), accepting the new meaning but noting that perception mattered. He suggested that if your audience cared, then you might choose to skunk hopefully:

Hopefully is now a part of [American English], and it has all but lost its traditional meaning…[T]hough the controversy swirling around this word has subsided, it is now a skunked term. Avoid it…if you’re concerned with your credibility: if you use it in the traditional way, many readers will think it odd; if you use it in the newish way, a few readers will tacitly tut-tut you. (DMAU 341; GMAU 427)

(It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Chicago and Garner agree: I’m pretty sure he wrote that chapter of Chicago.)

Most sources that bother to discuss the term’s history claim that the grumbling over hopefully began in the 1960s (at least one suggests the 1930s). However, Garner points out that linguist Fred R. Shapiro was able to find a print use of the “it is hoped” sense from way back in 1702 – and this from Cotton Mather, no less (Earlier Computer-Assisted Evidence on the Emergence of Hopefully as a Sentence Adverb, American Speech, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter 1999), pg. 439-441; you can look it up in JStor, but it also seems to be freely available here).

(The topic of sentence adverbs, raised here, is good fodder for a future post; I’ll plan to cover it next week.)

There’s some irony in the press coverage of AP’s change in position: with everyone else in agreement on the status of hopefully, and for some time already, is the fact that AP has finally caught up worthy of media attention? Probably not. But AP deserves some credit here. I’ve complained about their foot dragging on other issues (remember what they said about brackets?), but some of their special sections (on weather, sports, and food, to name a few) are very useful. One can only hope that (hopefully!) this is a sign that they’ll begin to move a little faster on other rapidly-changing usages.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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