Any writer who rails against sentential Hopefully and the passive voice in general is not worth listening to

Look. I sympathize with Mary Elizabeth Williams. I really do. I hate it when people misuse a word, and I hate the idea of English speakers separated by time and space meaning different things when they use the same words or being entirely unable to understand each other. I have my own grammar and usage “rules” that I always follow and that I think make for more effective writing, but I don’t write about them or mention them to anyone because descriptivists will point out that the rule is arbitrary, has been broken by esteemed writers for centuries, or isn’t usually necessary for clarity. So I stopped caring about them as rules and stopped labeling transgressors as wrong. I just judge them silently and collect examples Garner-style, possibly to be blagged about one day but most probably not.

Plus, if you write about a usage rule or trend that you haven’t studied like a linguist, you’re bound to make material errors much worse than using a word supposedly incorrectly. For example, Mary Elizabeth Williams and her compatriots lament sentence-initial Hopefully because the AP stylebook recently un-banished it, but there is no doubt that every single one of those annoying, smug little pedants has used dozens of different sentential adverbs before, in writing, without batting an eye. Frankly, Obviously, Surprisingly, Next, Additionally, Also, Luckily, Happily, Fortunately, Unfortunately, First, Maybe, etc., etc. (the last two by Williams herself in that very column). This the ONLY ONE they have a problem with, because their parents or teachers had a problem with it and instilled this attitude in them, and they like enforcing rules because rules are good, not because the particular rule in question is good.

It is perfectly reasonable to object to sentential Hopefully on the grounds that it unduly injects the author’s opinion into the sentence either inaccurately (does every reader also hope what the writer hopes?) or subversively (hey, if you want to state your own perspective, write “I hope”; if personal pronouns aren’t allowed in this publication, you should revise your statements to meet the literary or logical rigor it requires, without just asserting things because you hope everyone else agrees). I see nothing wrong with objecting to this sloppiness or personal perspective injection when such objections are warranted. But it’s important to remember that everything that was ever written, even primary scientific literature, was thunk up and written down by a human(s), who had opinions and hopes and functioning nervous systems, so it is pretty rare for an injection of the authors’ hopes to be completely inappropriate and unacceptable. (Even in primary scientific literature, a sentence near the end of the paper could easily and legitimately begin with “Hopefully,” to express the authors’ hope about future studies, discoveries, or advancements. There’s nothing about “We hope” that is superior to “Hopefully”.)

Therefore, while the objection to undue perspective-injecting on the part of the author is understandable, the objection only holds water on rare occasions. In the contexts in which an author would be tempted to begin a sentence with “Hopefully”, chances are exceedingly, vanishingly small that the context is inappropriate for that word. (For instance, in a news article about what terrorist group did what or who died where, I don’t see an AP correspondent writing, “Hopefully, no more dead bodies will be discovered.”)

So the word and its sentential use are not the problem; inappropriate context is, and I challenge any Hopefully pedant to find a single instance of inappropriate, unacceptable, context-ignorant sentential Hopefully in any half-respectable publication.

Now, on to Mary Elizabeth Williams’s interjection against passive voice: “Language is meant to be subverted. (Note bold use of passive voice!)” I echo John McIntyre’s call to that famous passive-voice-misunderstanding-exposer Geoffrey Pullum to explain whether Williams is right in calling that sentence passive, but I’m going to take my own stab at it and say No. I think McIntyre is right when he writes,

Neither bold, nor passive, I think. We could argue whether a past participle following a form of to be is a true passive or merely serving the same function as an adjective in a copular construction, as in the sentence “Ms. Williams’s argument is impaired.”

How about changing one word in Williams’s sentence (admittedly the most important word, but keeping it a past participle verb): “Language is supposed to be subverted.” How about “I am surprised at the level of ire she musters”? These both have the structure [noun] [to be conjugate] [participle], just like her supposed passive sentence. The thing is, meant is being used more like an adjective than a verb; there is no implied actor performing the verb; there is no meanor in her sentence or supposer or surpriser in my sentences. Passive, I think not. Language is the noun doing the action in the sentence; it is the thing that’s meant to be subverted, and it’s doing so right there.

Before hearing about Geoffrey Pullum and, shortly afterward, encountering his screeds against people who mistakenly criticize the passive voice while completely mis-identifying the passive voice in their examples, I never would have guessed that so many language commentators who rail against the passive voice would so often mis-identify that very voice. But they do. Ms. Williams does it here. Dr. Pullum has catalogued probably hundreds of examples, by now, of passive voice bashers bashing something that isn’t even the passive voice. It’s quite astounding.

We should criticize the passive voice when it obscures actors and meaning, so it’s good to avoid it as a general default approach, but the passive voice is frequently extremely useful. Further, if “Language is meant to be subverted” is the passive voice (which I doubt), then obviously any “rule” or even guideline that would bar the use of that phrasing is stupid because that sentence is perfectly fine, clear, and direct! How else are you going to express that idea? Any “rule” that would label that sentence as grammatically “undesirable” or “improvable” is a stupid rule based in ignorance.

Finally, did you ever notice that some (hell, probably all) of the very people who rail against the passive voice are also the people who rail against sentential Hopefully, and that they are being laughably inconsistent in these two crusades? They hate the passive voice because it is supposedly just inherently bad—less forceful, less clear, less direct. But then they go and say that injecting the speaker’s perspective into an article or essay by writing “Hopefully” is inappropriate because not everyone necessarily hopes that. Well, the only two alternatives for expressing the author’s hope are the much more personal “I hope” and the heavily passive and ridiculous-sounding “It is (to be) hoped that”. The former must be far worse than mere “Hopefully” on the personal-perspective-injection scale, and the latter is about the most clunky, stodgy, awkward, unnecessarily passive clause I can imagine. If an author wants to express the meaning “I hope that…”, without starting with “Hopefully”, then he can either use the first-person pronoun, which seems worse than implying his opinion with the word “Hopefully”, or he can write “It is to be hoped”, so the anti-passive, anti-Hopefully crusader is left with either “I hope” or hypocrisy.

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2 Responses to Any writer who rails against sentential Hopefully and the passive voice in general is not worth listening to

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