The Negative Canon: Hopefully

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

The OED’s first definition of hopefully is ‘In a hopeful manner; with a feeling of hope; with ground for hope, promisingly’, and the earliest citation is from the seventeenth century. The second definition is ‘It is hoped (that); let us hope.’ The earliest citation in this second sense is from 1932. The OED comments that it is of US origin and that it is ‘avoided by many writers’ (but doesn’t say that it should be avoided).

The OED’s contemporary cousin, Oxford Dictionaries Online, has this fuller explanation of what it is now the word’s most frequent use, but adds a note of caution:

This second use is now very much commoner than the first use, but it is still believed by some people to be incorrect. Why should this be? . . .  Part of the reason is that hopefully is a rather odd sentence adverb: while many others, such as sadly, regrettably and clearly, may be paraphrased as ‘it is sad / regrettable / clear that . . .’, this is not possible with hopefully. Nevertheless, it is clear that use of hopefully has become a shibboleth of ‘correctness’ in the language – even if the arguments on which this is based are not particularly strong – and it is wise to be aware of this in formal contexts.

I don’t suppose many who obect to this use of hopefully do so on the grounds that it lacks the potential for paraphrase on the lines of other sentence adverbs. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters suggests that:

Objections to this usage are based on the assumption that hopefully is and can only be an adverbial adjunct of manner . . . Yet no-one would seriously doubt that the word hopefully in such contexts expresses the hopes of the person speaking or writing. It is an attitudinal adverb (or ‘disjunct) which contributes interpersonal meaning to the statement. It takes its place beside numerous others.’

She continues:

. . . this use of hopefully is very common. Amid hundreds of BNC examples of the word, more than 75% make it an attitudinal adverb. The ‘Longman Grammar’ (1999) finds it in news reports and academic prose, as well as conversation. ‘Webster’s English Usage’ believes that the high tide of objections to it in the US was about 1975. High time to cease making a fetish of it!

Neither R L Trask in ‘Mind The Gaffe’ nor Peter Harvey in ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’ can see any objection to it, and, after considering the objections, even Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ concedes that ‘it has a certain usefulness.’

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ perhaps best sums up all these views in commenting:

You can use it if you need it, or avoid it if you do not like it. There never was anything really wrong with it; it was censured . . . because it was new, and it is not very new any more.

If objections to this perfectly normal use of a sentence adverb are on the wane, it is another instance of the way in which a new feature of the language is first criticised, and later absorbed into the language, when, after a decent interval, it is no longer thought remarkable.

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4 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

4 responses to “The Negative Canon: Hopefully

  1. Something that interests me is why one usage gets attacked and another does not. We heard no prescriptivist fulminations against megabyte, for example. Is it just chance which words get picked up and flung against the wall, or is there a pattern to it?

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    • Selectivity certainly seems to be a strong feature of usages that we might assign to the Negative Canon. In my introductory post in this series I quoted a list of criteria provided by Bessel Dekker that gave any particular item a good chance of making it into the Negative Canon. They are:

      Primary

      (a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
      (b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
      (c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

      Secondary

      (d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
      (e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
      (f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

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  2. Truthfully, I’ve never understood why ‘hopefully’ gets picked on. And, say, ‘truthfully’ doesn’t.

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