Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nunberg on "hopefully"

If you won’t be hearing it on “Fresh Air” today, you’ll want to catch up with Geoff Nunberg’s commentary on hopefully when the audio link goes up – or read it here.

Some highlights:
[Hopefully’s] detractors were operatic in their vilifications. ... The historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it "the most horrible usage of our times" -- a singular distinction in the age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."
The critics also complained that hopefully "doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping."
But neither does "It is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that critics like Wilson Follett offer as a "natural" substitute. That's what usage fetishism can drive you to -- you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.
The oddest thing about hopefully may be the persistence of its opponents. During Nunberg’s time as chair of the American Heritage Usage Panel, he reports,
panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated" or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." In 1969, only about half the panelists agreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.
But there's a surprisingly hopeful conclusion:
People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity.
I suspect this is true, and what good news it is. Because -- as I realized a few years ago, while researching peeves of the past – if we all accept one another’s peeves as valid, the list of don’ts can only keep growing, and it already taxes the abilities of the dwindling band of copy editors. Maybe we've already begun to do what John McIntyre wisely suggests: Ignore the usage fetishes that don’t really matter.


Bryan White said...

"I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."

I've never had someone tell me this. They usually say, "I'll be your server tonight." At some point they use to say, "waiter" or "waitress" There may have even been a brief flirtation with "waitperson" that I missed (although it's clear that rest of the world decided that it was mistake and moved on.) However, I have never heard anyone include that awkward "for" in that sentence.

They talk about strawman arguments. Is there such a thing as a "straw sentence"?

Gregory Lee said...

Ignore the usage fetishes that don’t really matter.

Are you going to tell us about the fetishes that do really matter?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Mostly I hear "... and I'll be taking care of you tonight."

But waitperson? While I've heard it - and waitstaff - I never heard anyone refer to themselves as that.

Allan Lloyd said...

"I'm Ken, and hopefully you believe that I won't irretrievably screw up your horrendously expensive dining experience tonight."

So is Ken doing the hoping, or his waitees?

Ø said...

Bryan, it's more a joke than an argument, and yes it might have been more effective without the "for". There was and is a word "waitperson". Nunberg didn't make it up. He didn't maintain that it's what people usually say; he just indicated that he finds it a horrible usage.

Gregory, how about if you decide what matters to you?

FigMince, it's clear that Ken is doing the hoping.

Allan Lloyd said...

Ø, I’m not sure I agree that ‘it’s clear’ that Ken is doing the hoping. Colloquially, the words could mean that, but surely in grammatical terms ‘hopefully’ is the adverb qualifying the verb ‘believe’ which has ‘you’ as its subject.

If we juxtapose the words to read ' hopefully believe...', the waitees become the hopers (doomed as they may be to the disappointment inevitable in any restaurant where waiters tell patrons their first names).

And to further demonstrate the potential confusability of this 'hopefully' word, what if we juxtapose the opening three words to read 'Hopefully, I'm Ken...'.

Ø said...


If Ken said "I'm Ken, and hopefully ..." to me then I would have no doubt of his meaning. If he changed the word order so that it no longer sounded like a familiar pattern of usage, then I might interpret his meaning differently, or I might have some doubt. Word order does matter in English.

The experts tell us that what you and I learned in school about adverbs as words whose job is to qualify verbs is far from adequate for analyzing many English sentences (and not just sentences that set off some people's peeves).

And I hate to tell you this, but that's not what "juxtapose" means.

Allan Lloyd said...

And another thing:

I can't be sure, Jan, whether an errant indent has caused the following to be attributed to Nunberg, or they're your words:

'In 1969, only about half the panelists agreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.'

Whoever said it, I suggest that it would be better expressed as 'In 1969, only about half the panelists DISagreed with it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent of them.'

It would have been less confusing to this reader if like had equated with like.

Allan Lloyd said...

Ø, this is out of sequence because I'd posted the above response before noticing your response, but thank you for the 'juxtapose' note. I'm humbled and embarrassed to discover that I've been using it incorrectly for a squillion years.

Hopefully I won't do it again. Oops, hopefully I'll endeavour not to do it again.

Marc Leavitt said...

Hopefully all our problems will be this small.

Gregory Lee said...

I like FigMince's rule about how to determine the logical subject of an adverb which modifies a verb, and that is (if I understand him): it's the same as the logical subject of the verb. And when hopefully does modify the verb, which is when it is a manner adverb, the theory works. In Joyce approached the oracle hopefully the one who has hope is the same as the one who approaches.

But as is often the case in English, when an adverb comes somewhere before the verb it modifies some larger constituent than the verb and is interpreted differently. In Hopefully, Joyce approached the oracle, hopefully no longer modifies the verb, no longer expresses a manner, and has a different logical subject. It's all different. Nunberg calls this hopefully a "floating sentence adverb", which I suppose means that he thinks it modifies a sentence. The interpretation suggests that it modifies the sentence Joyce approached the oracle. The logical subject of this preverbal hopefully could be "I", the speaker, or perhaps "we", to include the hearer, but clearly it's not Joyce who is hopeful.

Jan said...

FigMince, the comparison you're querying is indeed Nunberg's. I too would have used "disapprove" verbs in both places; luckily the first number is 50 percent, so you can hardly misunderstand. (Also, he's writing for broadcast; it may be easier to hear than to read.)

Bryan White said...

Seems to me that this floating "hopefully" is more of a sentiment than an adverb, an expression of optimism and reassurance. If I say, "Hopefully, we'll get this done.", it's not really a question of whether I hope or you hope, it's just that it's TO BE HOPED by... Whomever it may concern.

This "hopefully" is of a completely different kind than the "hopefully" in a sentence like, "She stared hopefully at the ocean, waiting for his return." Here "hopefully" totally refers to manner in which she was staring. On the other hand, "Hopefully, we'll get this done." doesn't mean that we're going to get it done in a hopeful fashion. It just means that we're hoping to get it done.

Anonymous said...

The worst grammar atrocity today is how the stupid media insists on using commas to mean "and" in headlines.

"Obama, Holder incompetent"

Please for the love of God just say "and" or at least use a freaking ampersand.