English usage

Hopefully, This Post Will Be Widely Read

Geoff Nunberg rushes to the defense of “hopefully,” in “The Word ‘Hopefully’ Is Here to Stay, Hopefully,” which appears at npr.org. Numberg (or the headline writer) may be right in saying that “hopefully” is here to stay. But that does not excuse the widespread use of the word in ways that are imprecise and meaningless.

The crux of Nunberg’s defense is that “hopefully” conveys a nuance that “language snobs” (like me) are unable to grasp:

Some critics object that ["hopefully" is] a free-floating modifier (a Flying Dutchman adverb, James Kirkpatrick called it) that isn’t attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker’s attitude. But floating modifiers are mother’s milk to English grammar — nobody objects to using “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” or “frankly” in exactly the same way.

Or people complain 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.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can’t hear what it’s really saying. The fact is that “I hope that” doesn’t mean the same thing that “hopefully” does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction. I’m comfortable saying, “I hope I survive to 105″ — it isn’t likely, but hey, you never know. But it would be pushing my luck to say, “Hopefully, I’ll survive to 105,” since that suggests it might actually be in the cards.

Floating modifiers may be common in English, but that does not excuse them. Given Numberg’s evident attachment to them, I am unsurprised by his assertion that “nobody objects to using ‘sadly,’ ‘mercifully,’ ‘thankfully’ or ‘frankly’ in exactly the same way.”

Nobody, Mr. Nunberg? Hardly. Anyone who cares about clarity and precision in the expression of ideas will object to such usages. A good editor would rewrite any sentence that begins with a free-floating modifier — no matter which one of them it is.

Nunberg’s defense against such rewriting is that Wilson Follet offers “It is to be hoped that” as a cumbersome, wordy substitute for “hopefully.” I assume that Nunberg refers to Follett’s discussion of “hopefully” in Modern American Usage: A Guide, a book that I have owned and consulted often, for several decades, and which remains authoritative on the many points of language that it addresses. Nunberg, once again, proves himself an adherent of imprecision, for this is what Follett actually says about “hopefully”:

The German language is blessed with an adverb, hoffentlich, that affirms the desirability of an occurrence that may or may not come to pass. It is generally to be translated by some such periphrasis as it is to be hoped that; but hack translators and persons more at home in German than in English persistently render it as hopefully. Now, hopefully and hopeful can indeed apply to either persons or affairs. A man in difficulty is hopeful of the outcome, or a situation looks hopeful; we face the future hopefully, or events develop hopefully. What hopefully refuses to convey in idiomatic English is the desirability of the hoped-for event. College, we read, is a place for the development of habits of inquiry, the acquisition of knowledge and, hopefully, the establishment of foundations of wisdom. Such a hopefully is un-English and eccentric; it is to be hoped is the natural way to express what is meant. The underlying mentality is the same—and, hopefully, the prescription for cure is the same (let us hope) / With its enlarged circulation–and hopefully also increased readership–[a periodical] will seek to … (we hope) / Party leaders had looked confidently to Senator L. to win . . . by a wide margin and thus, hopefully, to lead the way to victory for. . . the Presidential ticket (they hoped) / Unfortunately–or hopefully, as you prefer it–it is none too soon to formulate the problems as swiftly as we can foresee them. In the last example, hopefully needs replacing by one of the true antonyms of unfortunately–e.g. providentially.

The special badness of hopefully is not alone that it strains the sense of -ly to the breaking point, but that appeals to speakers and writers who do not think about what they are saying and pick up VOGUE WORDS [another entry in Modern American Usage] by reflex action. This peculiar charm of hopefully accounts for its tiresome frequency. How readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel is seen in the similar use of transferred meaning in other adverbs denoting an attitude of mind. For example: Sorrowfully (regrettably), the officials charged with wording such propositions for ballot presentation don’t say it that way / the “suicide needle” which–thankfully–he didn’t see fit to use (we are thankful to say). Adverbs so used lack point of view; they fail to tell us who does the hoping, the sorrowing, or the being thankful. Writers who feel the insistent need of an English equivalent for hoffentlich might try to popularize hopingly, but must attach it to a subject capable of hoping.

Follett, contrary to Nunberg’s assertion, does not offer “It is to be hoped that” as a substitute for “hopefully,” which would “cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction.” Follett gives “it is to be hoped for” as the sense of “hopefully.” But, as the preceding quotation attests, Follett is able to replace “hopefully” (where it is misused) with a few short words that take no longer to write or say than “hopefully,” and which convey the writer’s or speaker’s intended meaning more clearly. And if it does take a few extra words to say something clearly, why begrudge those words?

What about the other floating modifiers — such as “sadly,” “mercifully,” “thankfully” and “frankly” — which Nunberg defends with much passion and no logic? Follett addresses those others in the third paragraph quoted above, but he does not dispose of them properly. For example, I would not simply substitute “regrettably” for “sorrowfully”; neither is adequate. What is wanted is something like this: “The officials who write propositions for ballots should not have said … , which is misleading (vague/ambiguous).” More words? Yes, but so what? (See above.)

In any event, a writer or speaker who is serious about expressing himself clearly to an audience will never say things like “Sadly (regrettably), the old man died,” when he means either “I am (we are/they are/everyone who knew him) is saddened by (regrets) the old man’s dying,” or (less probably) “The old man grew sad as he died” or “The old man regretted dying.” I leave “mercifully,” “thankfully,” “frankly” and the rest of the over-used “-ly” words as an exercise for the reader.

The aims of a writer or speaker ought to be clarity and precision, not a stubborn, pseudo-logical insistence on using a word or phrase merely because it is in vogue or (more likely) because it irritates so-called language snobs. I doubt that even the pseudo-logical “language slobs” of Nunberg’s ilk condone “like” and “you know” as interjections. But, by Nunberg’s “logic,” those interjections should be condoned — nay, encouraged — because “everyone” knows what someone who uses them is “really saying”: “I am too stupid or lazy to express myself clearly and precisely.”

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“Hopefully” Arrives

“Hopefully” Arrives

Mark Liberman of Language Log discusses

the AP Style Guide’s decision to allow the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, announced on Twitterat 6:22 a.m. on 17 April 2012:

Hopefully, you will appreciate this style update, announced at ‪#aces2012‬. We now support the modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.

Ugh!

Liberman, who is a grammar anarchist (see below), defends AP’s egregious decision. His defense consists mainly of citing noted writers who have used “hopefully” where they meant “it is to be hoped.” I suppose that if those same noted writers had chosen to endanger others by driving on the wrong side of the road, Liberman would praise them for their “enlightened” approach to driving.

Liberman’s grammar anarchy is nothing new for him or for Language Log. Here are two posts that I wrote about Liberman and Language Log in March 2008:

Missing the Point

Mark Liberman of Language Log has devoted at least three posts to James J. Kilpatrick’s supposed linguistic socialism. Kilpatrick stands accused (gasp!) of trying to propound rules of English grammar. Given that Kilpatrick can’t enforce such rules, except in the case of his own writing, it seems to me that Liberman is overreacting to Kilpatrick’s dicta.

I am not surprised by Liberman’s reaction to Kilpatrick, given that Liberman seems to be a defender of gramma[r] anarchy. Liberman tries to justify his anarchistic approach to grammar by quoting from Friedrich Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1: Rules and Order; for example:

Man … is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations.

All of which is true, but misinterpreted by Liberman.

First, given that Kilpatrick cannot dictate the rules of grammar, he is a mere participant in the “process of selection” which shapes those rules. In a world that valued effective communication, Kilpatrick’s views would be given more weight than those of, say, a twenty-something who injects “like, you know,” into every sentence. But whether or not Kilpatrick’s views are given more weight isn’t up to Kilpatrick. However much Kilpatrick might like to be a linguistic authoritarian, he is not one.

Second, Hayek’s observation has nothing to do with anarchy, although Liberman wants to read into the passage an endorsement of anarchy. Hayek’s real point is that rules which survive, or survive with incremental modifications, do so because they are more efficient (i.e., more effective, given a resource constraint) than rules that fall by the wayside.

Kilpatrick, and other “strict constructionists” like him, can’t dictate the course of the English language, but they can strive to make it more efficient. Certainly the thought that they give to making English a more efficient language (or forestalling its devolution toward utter inefficiency) should be praised, not scorned.

Language games can be fun, but language is much more than a game, contra Liberman’s approach to it. Language is for communicating ideas — the more efficiently, the better. But, in the three posts linked here, Liberman (strangely) has nothing to say about the efficiency of language. He seems more concerned about James J. Kilpatrick’s “linguistic socialism” than about the ability of writers and speakers to deploy a version of English that communicates ideas clearly.

Well, at least Liberman recognizes socialism as a form of authoritarianism.

More Gramma[r] Anarchy

I noted in the previous post that Mark Liberman of Language Log is a gramma[r] anarchist. Perhaps gramma[r] anarchism is a condition of blogging at Language Log. Arnold Zwicky of that blog corrects a writer who refers to the subjunctive mood as the “subjective tense.” So far, so good. But Zwicky then goes on to excuse those who insist on using

the ordinary past rather than a special counterfactual form (often called “the subjunctive” or “the past subjunctive”) for expressing conditions contrary to fact….

…There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the special counterfactual form — I do so myself — but there’s also nothing wrong with using the ordinary past to express counterfactuality. It’s a matter of style and personal choice, and no matter which form you use, people will understand what you are trying to say.

But somehow preserving the last vestige of a special counterfactual form has become a crusade for some people. There are surely better causes.

There may be “better causes,” but Zwicky’s ceding of grammatical ground to “personal choice” leads me to doubt that he will fight for those causes.

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Data Are

Data Are

To me, the most offensive of the many abhorrent usages now current is the treatment of “data” as a singular noun. A person who says “data is” is at best an ignoramus and at worst a Philistine.

Language, above all else, should be used to make one’s thoughts clear to others. The pairing of a plural noun and a singular verb form is distracting, if not confusing. Even though datum is seldom used by Americans, it remains the singular foundation of data, which is the plural form. Data, therefore, never “is”; they always “are.

Fowler says:

Latin plurals sometimes become singular English words (e.g., agenda, stamina) and data is often so treated in U.S.; in Britain this is still considered a solecism…. (H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, second edition, p.119)

But Follett is better on the subject:

Those who treat data as a singular doubtless think of it as a generic noun, comparable to knowledge or information…. [A generous interpretation: ED.] The rationale of agenda as a singular is its use to mean a collective program of action, rather than separate items to be acted on. But there is as yet no obligation to change the number of data under the influence of error mixed with innovation. (Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage, pp. 130-1)

To say “data are” is to present oneself as a learned person of high standards. That, unfortunately, is an “old fashioned” attitude in this day of dumbed-down vulgarity.