Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It Is Hoped That I'm Getting This Right

Joe D. (true-blue TOSC backer, surfer, vaguely proud Keystone Stater, renaissance man, sudden yeller of various exclamations) has asked for a post on "hopefully." I've stuck to the time-honored TOSC tradition of waiting days if not weeks to post after a request is made; now is the time.

My homeboy Bryan Garner, author of the priceless Dictionary of Modern American Usage, calls "hopefully" a "skunked term" -- its meaning has shifted over the years to the point that it's now mired in a lexical purgatory, forever haunted by its old and new usages. It's the Marley's ghost of words. (Okay, it's probably better to the call it the Virgil or words, but it's the Christmas season. And what snob would make a Virgil reference in a blog post?)

Your English teacher will tell you that "hopefully" is an adverb meaning "in a hopeful manner." By that strict definition, it should only be used to describe an action: "Joe pointed hopefully to the surf, searching for that one gnarly wave."

Your L.A. Weekly critic/feature writer/news reporter will tell you that "hopefully" means "it is to be hoped." So old sticklers go nuts over sentences like these: "Hopefully, Joe won't be eaten alive by that gnarly wave."

The second usage is far and away the predominant one, and sages like Garner have given up. "Whatever the merits of those arguments [against the new usage], the battle is now over. Hopefully is now a part of American English, and it has all but lost its traditional meaning." Webster's, in a huge cop-out, gives both as acceptable definitions.

So here we are, stuck again in the gray soup that is the English language. What to do? Let clarity be your guide! When it comes to a tweener word like "hopefully," let's forget the English teacher and just be sure we're using it in a way that conveys clear meaning. The masses won on this one, and, as the brilliant Bugs Bunny used to say, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."


Blogger kate said...

Nice. Now, please settle a debate between me and a loved one over usage of the word "momentarily." He claims it means "for a moment," e.g., "I was momentarily overwhelmed by the pure rock power of Guns N' Roses at the Coliseum."

He says I am wrong to use it thusly: "My Guns N'Roses T-shirt will be out of the dyer momentarily, and then we can go to the show."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating! We'll put it through the TOSC*Tron 3500 and get back to you ASAP.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Function: adverb
1 : for a moment (was momentarily delayed)
2 archaic : INSTANTLY
3 : at any moment : in a moment (will be leaving momentarily)

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