Nothing Is True Forever

Just about every week, receives emails like this: “My brilliant ninth-grade English teacher drilled into us that so-and-so, but now you say such-and-such.” The painful truth is that with each new generation the rules change.

If you were in high school in the 1970s, it’s a safe bet that your brilliant English teacher lectured you about the word hopefully. Forty years ago this word polarized America. People loved to say it, and language snobs loved to hate it. The veteran TV journalist Edwin Newman had a sign in his office that said, “Abandon ‘hopefully’ all ye who enter here.”

Nobody claimed that hopefully was invalid—it was the way everyone used it that was unacceptable. The word’s strict meaning is “filled with hope,” as in Hopefully, I knocked on my true love’s door. But few used it that way. It came to mean “it is hoped that,” as in Hopefully, my dream will come true.

The authorities were up in arms for several reasons. For starters, hopefully became a fad word, like today’s awesome or amazing. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing it everywhere. The more people said it, the more grating and vapid it became.

Beyond that, language scholars saw hopefully as a cop-out—no more than a glib way of avoiding “I hope.” It’s intentionally unclear who is hoping in Hopefully, my dream will come true. The word just floats there, unattached. Are you saying the whole universe hopes your dream will come true? Are you really that special?

Those who weren’t there can’t know how passionately the sticklers despised hopefully. “Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications,” says writer Geoff Nunberg. The odd thing was that the same detractors had no objection to other “floating” adverbs, such as thankfully, happily, and frankly.

For decades the venerable Associated Press Stylebook said in its entry on hopefully: “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.” So imagine the surprise of many who opened the 2012 edition and found this: “The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Now, after all these years, the uproar is a dim memory, and the word is accepted in most quarters (although you will never see a floating hopefully in this space).

So much for that English teacher’s scolding in 1979. To the dismay of traditionalists, a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.

Posted on Monday, July 21, 2014, at 10:25 pm

7 Comments on Nothing Is True Forever

7 responses to “Nothing Is True Forever”

  1. Roger Brady says:

    Although I find the use of the word “hopefully” to mean “I hope” to be repugnant, I have also come to accept its use in that sense. I do not object to the evolution of the language on principle; I do object to the diminution of the power of English as a result of ignorance or laziness. By this criterion this usage is not a great transgression; it is no great hardship to say “John went to the store hopefully” if that is what a speaker means to communicate. However, I have always had the same objection to “thankfully,” “happily,” and “frankly” if used in the same construction, and I have never understood why those who object to the first do not object to the latter. To say “frankly, John refused” carries the same meaning, to my ear, as “John refused frankly,” yet I cannot be confident that the speaker of these two sentences intends the same meaning.
    In the end, precision of meaning is often sacrificed to sloth and indifference. We shall survive, and I shall do my best to adapt, but why we should suffer the emasculation of our language is beyond my understanding.

  2. DLO says:

    “… a language’s rules are bound to change when enough people refuse to obey them.” Does this mean the rules for using “I and Me” will eventually change. It seems that almost no one follows the rules, ( e.g. Me and Tom …) TV’s sitcom writers even ignore the usage rules. They probably assume the viewers are idiots so why not write the scripts accordingly.

  3. Christina says:

    Please help! Is it “I feel very similar to how a lot of birth mothers of adopted children feel” or “I feel very similarly to how a lot of birth mothers of adopted children feel” ? Thank you!

    • We’re thinking you are trying to get around writing “I feel like a lot of mothers of adopted children feel,” since like is strictly a preposition. However, “I feel very similar to how a lot of mothers of adopted children feel” is a tortured sentence. Feel like is a valid long-standing idiom, and as such would be acceptable in all but the most formal writing. “I feel the way a lot of mothers of adopted children feel” is an elegant solution too—totally grammatical.

  4. Matt S. says:

    So what you’re saying is that “hopefully” was being used as a contextual phrase (as if to say “I hopefully state that my dream will come true”) to the extent of becoming an interjection.

    Could I just assume that all “floating” adverbs are interjections?

    I seem to feel that “so-and-so” is normally reserved for replacing names of people, not places or things. I wonder why I think that.

    • That is an interesting notion, but floating adverbs such as hopefully or frankly are not interjections, exactly. They are adverbs that modify the whole sentence rather than modify a verb, adjective, or adverb. Interjections do not modify.

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