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Where Do You Stand in the Battle of "Hopefully"?

Where Do You Stand in the Battle of "Hopefully"?

If you're a word nerd, you may have read that the Associated Press Stylebook just announced its new rules and revisions for 2012. Among vastly updated sections on fashion and social media (yep, Facebook is official) one change in particular has sparked a weirdly political debate between conservative grammarians and populist talkers.

In broad terms, it's a battle for hope—like Star Wars! Specifically, it's a tiff over the acceptable usage of the word "hopefully."

Basically, the AP style book conceded to the popular use of the word "hopefully" as an all-purpose modifier to say "it is hoped/we hope." This has some linguists pissed, as "hopefully" is an adverb, and is rendered technically meaningless when not attached directly to a verb. It's a sticky argument, and as with many liberal/conservative clashes, we think it's been needlessly heated.

Here's a rundown of the teams in the war for "hopefully." Where do you stand?

The argument for traditional usage is:
Hopefully is an adverb and, by definition, must be attached to a verb in order to mean anything. In the sentence "Artemis stared hopefully into the toilet," for example, "hopefully" is modifying the verb "stare," describing the manner in which the action is being completed (in a hopeful manner). On the other hand, in the sentence "Hopefully, the latrine nymphs will come back today, Artemis thought," neither the subject "latrine nymphs" nor the verb "come back" are actively hopeful. Our adverb is just floating there, adrift and useless like so much pixie poo.

Some writers understandably see (<that's proper adverbing!) this "hopefully" kerfuffle as a symbol of larger linguistic problems in our culture. If we let one word's proper usage get undermined by grammatically incorrect popular usage, the same fate could befall any word, phrase, or punctuation. What's the point of grammar at all if popular usage ultimately governs how we speak and write? If we give up on "hopefully," we give up on grammar at large. Society falls into anarchy, horses ride people, and the devil dances a jig on Shakespeare's frilly grave.

The counter-argument is:
Yeah...that might happen. But what else is new? Popular usage has dictated the meaning of words as long as words have been a thing.

"Awful" used to mean wonderful—literally, "full of awe." Now, thanks to centuries of transformation through usage, it means "sucky."

"Artificial" once meant "full of artistic skill." Now it means "phony baloney."

In the span of a few years the word "Muggle" went from meaning "that's not even a word, my head hurts, I hate you," to becoming an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Words change—so do all things. It's unstoppable. Things become obsolete, and in their place new things bloom. It's true, we don't have milkmen anymore. But we do have bloggers, and as one who frequently uses words like "mindgoo" and "buffakilo" in posts, this word nerd is all for the fluidity of written and spoken language. There's also several other style manuals out there that don't accept the same popular interpretation of "hopefully." SparkLife—and most publications, actually—uses its own unique set of style conventions. Don't even get us started on poets.

The bottom line is:
Style rules basically exist to maintain some consistency in published writing. This is important if you're an editor who wants to put out a cohesive, easily understood product, and also if you're a writer who wants to not get yelled at or fired. More importantly, style conventions are good for you, the reader. Style rules keep you from being blighted by a billion misplaced commas or un'nec'es's'ary apostrophes, which means you can focus on the juicy information/stories/jokes represented by these patterned strings of text.

But if you're not a professional reporter or publisher, it doesn't really matter what the OED or AP Stylebook says. At the end of the day, your words are your own. If you think "hopefully" should be used exclusively in conjunction with a verb, then good for you! You're a traditionalist, and it's on you to keep that linguistic rule alive in your own speech. If you think "hopefully" should dance willy-nilly throughout your sentences like a carefree language ballerina, then good for you too! You're a populist wordsmith with fantabulous flair. In your personal writing, do whatever makes you happy. In your professional writing, do whatever makes your boss or teacher happy. Hopefully, we'll be able to understand you either way.

Topics: Books, Life
Tags: language, grammar, news, hopefully, ap style

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About the Author
Brandon Specktor

For 22 years, Brandon was a fat kid living in Tucson, AZ, which gave him lots and lots of time to write. He now works at a magazine in New York City, but still loves writing almost as much as he loves muffins.

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