The Billings Outpost

‘Hopefully’ springs eternal in English

My erudite friend Ed Kemmick at The Billings Gazette noted in his Sunday column that the Associated Press Stylebook has abandoned its prohibition on the word “hopefully.”

Earlier, on the Billings Blog, I took notice of the same change under a title I took from a sign that used to hang in the English department at Texas A&M University: “Abandon hopefully, all ye who enter here.” In my somewhat overdramatic post, I suggested, “Now the world as we knew it has ended.”

Mr. Kemmick and I shared a few years pruning copy at The Gazette, so it may not be surprising that we agree in broad terms. He argues that the battle over “hopefully” no longer is worth fighting, but he’s glad that the “Miss Grundys of the world” fight the battles. Fair enough, but nits remain to be picked.

Mr. Kemmick’s comparison of “hopefully” to other unexceptional adverbs misses a couple of points. For one, “hopefully” can mean two very different things. Consider this passage: “She really wanted to go to college. Hopefully, she answered all of the questions on the admissions test.” Does “hopefully” refer to her desire for a successful outcome or to the writer’s desire that she did the required work?

Considering that the first meaning seems to be vanishing from the language, this might be no big deal. Mr. Kemmick argues that “hopefully” is superior to the clunky “It is to be hoped,” but that misses the point.

An easy alternative exists: “I hope that she answered all of the questions.” Hope, after all, does not flourish in a vacuum. People hope they will win the lottery. Dogs hope they will be fed. Hope does not exist independently of whatever is doing the hoping.

It’s a bit like a word beloved by journalists: “allegedly.” But as persnickety old journalism professors like Mr. Kemmick’s must have noted, “allegedly” provides neither legal nor factual protection. Allegations have to be made by someone; “allegedly” dodges a question that must not be dodged.

One might also argue that English would be better off without some of the other adverbs Mr. Kemmick lists that, he says, lead no one to bat an eye: “frankly,” “naturally,” “arguably” and “interestingly.”

In my experience, “frankly” is mostly used as a signal to the reader that a lie is to follow. “Interestingly” means that the writer has exhausted interesting material and is resorting to theatrics. “Arguably” means that a fight might be possible but has not started. It is the rhetorical equivalent of two sloppy drunks shouting cuss words in a bar.

Only “naturally” means something useful, so naturally I overuse it. It might be best restricted to Lou Costello’s reference to it as the name of a backup infielder in the “Who’s on First?” routine.

Mr. Kemmick notes that German has a perfectly acceptable equivalent of “hopefully” in the word “hoffentlich.” True enough, but German also works a few other linguistic tricks less worthy of emulation.

In my alternate life, I teach and tutor writing for college students. I don’t worry much about “hopefully” but fight an unending battle over pronoun agreement that would make Miss Grundy proud.

In ordinary conversation, the use of “they” as the universal pronoun is so widespread in America as to be virtually undetectable. We say, “At Walmart, they have low prices” without, as Mr. Kemmick would put it, batting an eye, even though the pronoun leaves unspecified whether it refers to the Walmart store itself, to its employees, to its managers or to its owners.

Business students will frequently write sentences like this: “At Walmart they have low prices for their customers because they care about customer service.” Logic and grammar dictate that the second “they” should refer to customers. Context suggests it refers to Walmart. Happy reading!

So I repeatedly explain to glassy-eyed students that pronouns should agree with their antecedents in gender and number. They get the gender part: Nobody writes, “The boy lost her book.” But “The student lost their book” sails by unnoticed.

England solves the pronoun problem by using plural verbs with collective nouns. English broadcasters will say, quite properly, “Birmingham are leading, 3-2,” so “They are leading” follows logically. But in America, it’s “New York is leading” and “The Yankees are leading, damn it.” I tell students that we fought a long and bloody war with England over the right to use pronouns as we choose, and I don’t intend to give up that right without another war.

This development in American English arose about the time I was in college, at the height of the sexual revolution, scholars got uncomfortable with the generic “he,” as in “The male or female student lost his book.” We wound up with awkward constructions like “s/he” or “he or she” or even, in one of my college textbooks, the use of “she” and “he” as the generic pronoun in alternate chapters. Sensibly, modern students simply surrender and use “they” for everything.

German, to get back to my point, avoids this ugly result by assigning gender, or lack of it, to every noun. The sun is feminine. The moon is masculine. A little girl, bless its heart, is neuter.

That approach throws the whole argument about gender-based pronouns into another league. As with “hoffentlich,” it causes no problems for Germans, outside of the occasional world war.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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