Thursday, April 19, 2012

`Hopefully' fought the law -- and won. Now what? -- April 19, 2012 column


The bad news came in a tweet.

“Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update…We now support modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.”

The message couldn’t have upset the grammar police more had the Associated Press’s Stylebook instead said that we now find starting a sentence with “me and him” or describing something as “very unique” acceptable.

My immediate reaction: You can have “we hope” when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Wrong is wrong, I grumped. Hopefully means in a hopeful way, as in, he hopefully began his audition. Not, we hope, as in, hopefully the Nats will win the World Series.

Is using hopefully wrong a modern phenomenon? Undeniably. So is hearing little children spout words that once would have earned a mouthful of soap. Hearing something frequently doesn’t make it right.

I know, I know, far more important changes take place in society every day. But I’m a purist, if not a word prude, an English major. Like a Marine, once an English major, always an English major. Most people don’t keep dictionaries in almost every room of their home. Most people lead happy, productive lives misusing hopefully, in the modern way.

The AP Stylebook calls itself the journalist’s bible, and it’s the law in matters of spelling, word usage and punctuation for most newspapers and many other publications. If it says to spell out whole numbers below 10 and figures for 10 and above, journalists do. In March 2011, the stylebook decreed that henceforth we would omit the hyphen in email -- but keep it in e-commerce and e-book. That was a big day.

But hopefully? Stylebook editors tried to hold the line, reminding writers and editors in a 2009 tweet: "`Hopefully’ means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.”

That fine distinction vanished this week. Several major dictionaries have acknowledged the new usage, and the AP decided it was time.

My “New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” – in the den on the first floor -- says hopefully came into use in the 1600s, but the modern usage that “some find erroneous” popped up between 1900 and 1929. Aha, something else to blame on the 20th century.

When The Washington Post ran a story about the stylebook’s capitulation, more than 600 readers commented online. Many were relieved that they can stop worrying about the silly rule. Others were appalled that the grammar scofflaws have won. Again.

To accept the modern hopefully is to be a clear-eyed realist. I know from personal experience, teaching writing to college students and adults, that no single topic prompts more bewilderment than the rule on hopefully – none, that is, except not relying on spell check.

Speaking of which, the AP’s surrender on hopefully came just days after the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication announced it was scrapping the requirement that students pass a spelling test before graduation. Starting this fall, the school will test grammar skills and word usage, but not spelling.

Everybody has and uses spell check, the reasoning goes. Yes, but spell check will break your heart.

My copy of “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” – in my home office on the third floor -- warns, “In the sense of ‘let us hope,’ this adverb inflames passions,” because many writers and teachers hew to traditional usage.

“So writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write `they hope’ or `with luck.’ With luck, writers and editors will avoid wooden alternatives like ‘it is hoped’ or ‘one hopes,’” the Times’s manual advises.

Columnist Clyde Haberman, in his “The Day” blog on the Times site, wrote that Philip B. Corbett, the paper’s associate managing editor for standards, said there will be no change in policy regarding hopefully for now.

It’s up to all of us to be our own word standards editors. The AP isn’t ordering anyone to use hopefully in the modern way. With luck, we can carry on. Let us hope.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully, Ms Mercer can rest easy now that hopefully has been clarified, more or less. The change from serious political and soial isuues is like a breath of fresh air. We loved her use of the light touch to make her column easy reading and enjoyable, while retaining its instrucional value.