Anti-Hopefully crusaders are hopeless

Some of the comments to the (in)famous Mary Elizabeth Williams column that I blagged about yesterday are so stupid they practically drool. It’s a shame I didn’t read this column (or, actually, its comments) earlier, because I could have ranted and raved against their stupidity directly in response to them, instead of here, where they’ll never see it (nor will many others). But this blag’s for my own enjoyment and an outlet for my own thoughts and frustrations, so writing about those comments and their ignorance here is good enough.

(To review, Mary Elizabeth Williams sort of lamented, sort of understood, and sort of threw up her hands in surrender at the Associated Press’s official de-banishment of the sentence-modifying adverb Hopefully, as in Hopefully, the AP won’t make future concessions that actually do harm usage. The objection is that hopefully should only modify specific verbs, describing how an action was done, not modify whole clauses or sentences, because sentential hopefully injects the writer’s own personal perspective (his hopes) into the sentence, where it doesn’t belong.)

The worst offender in the six pages of comments, which were a mix of sensible, smart, stupid, ignorant, superstitious, interesting, boring, and indifferent, was named Francis E. Dec. In response to a professional editor who wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Hopefully, we’ll all get over it,” Francis E. Dec responded,

(Hopefully, we’ll all get over it.)

What does that sentence mean? Does that mean you are hopeful that some other group accepts this change? You use the term “we,” but prior to that seem to exclude yourself from those who need to “get over it.” Or does it meant hat those who do not accept the change are hopeful?

Perhaps you begin to see the problem with using an adverb when there is ambiguity concerning the verb it modifies? I don’t know who is hoping in that sentence. Do you?

That you might be someone who has worked professionally for thirty years does not shock me. It is, after all, the declining standards of professionals such as yourself that has led to this change in the AP style guide.

Francis is an idiot or, more likely, is being intentionally obtuse to try in vain to make a point. It is obvious who is doing the hoping: the author. Stop being a smug, pedantic little twit. You, I, and everyone who reads that sentence know exactly who is hoping. It is the person who typed it. Stop pretending it isn’t obvious.

Further down, in response to the column itself, Francis E. Dec wrote,

The AP Stylebook editors did this to sell copies. They have no requirement to yield to changes in common usage as they claim. They publish a stylebook, not a dictionary. The job of the style guide is to provide a universal standard for writers in a particular profession. You can bet the MLA style guide, APA guide, and other professional style guides won’t change. (One hopes.)

One hopes? Who is “one”? Which one? You? So you’re filling in your own hope for the unknown hopes of your nameless, anonymous readers, who may or may not share yours? Are you assuming all of your readers’ hopes are one with yours? How are we supposed to interpret “One hopes” if not as “Everyone hopes”? How about “It is hoped”? Well, hoped by whom? Same problem. Why not write “I hope”? Because the first person is forbidden in your weird, stupid fantasy land and we’re supposed to pretend those words just appeared on the page with your name above them? You can’t bear to use an alternative wording that’s at least as clear (“Hopefully” or “I hope”), so you choose to say that “one hopes” instead of saying you hope it, thereby committing in equal severity exactly the same insidious personal perspective injection that you’re trying oh-so-smugly to shoot down.

People like Francis E. Dec are hopeless, self-blinding, insufferable, willfully ignorant, pedantic, annoying little twits who seem invariably to make the same “mistakes” they rail against or worse ones. At best they’re a nuisance that we ignore or brush away occasionally like a persistent mosquito, and at worst they’re a scourge on English usage everywhere, only impeding clear writing with their inane, groundless, ineffective pseudo-rules and harming the credibility of the purveyors of beneficial usage rules because they make us all look like crazy, superstitious pedants.

There are good grammar/vocabulary/usage rules, and there are bad ones, and those who push bad ones that aren’t grounded in logic, aren’t backed by history, aren’t observed by esteemed writers, and don’t improve style or clarity are harming their own language far more than any sentential adverb could.

Later, a commenter named G. I. wrote a thoughtful, sensible comment that was marred by, what else?, a weak objection to to sentential Hopefully:

So it is really pretty simple unless we choose to be perverse about it. That said, I would make a distinction between spoken language and written language re “hopefully.” In spoken language, it is, as its defenders say, merely a short form of “It is to be hoped that.” Like much informal speech, it is inelegant but unlikely to be misunderstood. In written language, it’s wrong for the simplest of reasons: it can’t be diagrammed–it can’t be attached to any word that it modifies with one of those little diagonal stems. (The phrase used as a sentence for effect CAN be parsed: the omitted part of the complete sentence is clearly implied and indicated as such in the diagram.)

Um, learn how to diagram better? I mean, come on, these aren’t fucking Feynman diagrams that illustrate a fundamental force, movement, or interaction of particles and energy under the immutable laws of physics; they are human-designed markings on paper to illustrate the uses of and relationships between human-determined, human-evolved, and human-implemented language components. If your precious diagrams are unable to parse sentential Hopefully, then you and your diagrams are the problem, not the word that makes perfect sense to everyone and has a clear, unambiguous meaning. The nature of sentence diagrams is not constrained by some universal laws; if they have a shortcoming, modify the diagrams, not the language! Sheesh!

In a sentence that begins with Hopefully, the subject doing the hoping is understood (I). Note another type of sentence that has an understood subject: imperative sentences, also known as commands. Go to the store. Read this article. Stop doing that. Their understood subject is You. Sentence diagrams are perfectly capable of handling those understood subjects, so no, I doubt they are simply inadequate to handle the understood subject of a sentence with sentential hopefully.

Finally, in an exchange that was pretty well handled by the more sensible of the two participants, one Rrhain tries to explain that adverbs can only modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs, and “They don’t modify phrases unless those phrases function as one of those parts of speech.” (This is simply a false statement.) He uses specific example sentences posted by a previous commenter and tries to rearrange them to make his point, to his own detriment:

Specifically, the adverb is not modifying the clause but rather a specific part of the sentence, either the verb or an adjective. It has simply been separated from it. You can recast each of those sentences to place the adverb directly next to the word it is modifying and remove the comma:

I actually do live in Chicago.
I do actually live in Chicago.
Mrs. Brown arrived surprisingly late despite her usual punctuality.
I usually eat at home.

He is right that many, if not most, sentential adverbs can be moved to the interior of the sentence, adjacent to the verb, adjective, or adverb they actually modify, but interestingly, he misunderstands the surprisingly example not once but twice. Here, he doesn’t understand that the original sentence that another commenter wrote, “Suprisingly, Mrs. Brown arrived late despite her usual punctuality,” has Surprisingly modifying the entire statement, not the arrived or the late. Due to his misunderstanding, he makes surprisingly modify late in clear contrast to the meaning of the original commenter’s sentence. After another commenter explains this to him, Rrhain still refuses to understand:

Whether “surprisingly” is modifying “arrived” or “late,” it is modifying a specific part of speech: The verb or the adjective. It is not modifying an entire sentence. To reduce your sentence down to its bare bones:

Mrs. Brown surprisingly arrived.

This was especially enjoyable and rewarding to me, somehow. This ignorant anti-Hopefully pedant misunderstands his own rules and admonitions, and misuses surprisingly not once but twice, all because he has set himself on this crusade against sentential adverbs and refuses to acknowledge that not just hopefully but many, many more adverbs, such as surprisingly, are frequently, clearly, and correctly used as sentence-modifying words.

With that last suprisingly example, Rrhain insists that Mrs. Brown’s arrival can legitimately be described with the adverb surprisingly only because this adverb modifies a specific verb in the sentence, arrived.

Um, no, it doesn’t. Let’s explore why.

Superstitious pedants like Rrhain love to repeat the mantra that hopefully shouldn’t be used unless the author means that a person was hopeful while doing an action; they performed that verb in a hopeful manner. Therefore, Rrhain and his ilk ought to know how to put verbs and adverbs together and what it means when a verb is modified directly by an adverb like hopefully or surprisingly; after all, they remind us that that’s the only truly correct way to use these adverbs every chance they get. Yet here, Rrhain has used surprisingly incorrectly to modify a verb it has no business modifying! Mrs. Brown did not arrive in a surprising manner; the effect that her arriving itself had on others was not to evoke surprise; she did not perform the arriving in a surprising way. Rather, the whole combined fact of her arriving late despite her usual punctuality is what’s surprising! That’s why Surprisingly should be used at the beginning of the sentence in a sentential role, to modify the whole sentence! However, because Rrhain refuses to allow sentential adverbs, we see him put surprisingly right before the verb, which changes its meaning from modifying the whole fact of Mrs. Brown’s arrival to the nature of her arrival.

It’s almost ironic, except willful ignorance, inconsistency, hypocrisy, and plain stupidity are expected from anti-Hopefully crusaders, so I don’t find his misunderstanding and misuse of surprisingly surprising at all.

He also makes the same mistake in his first post, in a slightly less obvious way:

For example: “I’ll go in a bit.” “In a bit,” while not containing any adverbs itself, is functioning as an adverb, modifying “go” to indicate time. You could use “hopefully” in this sentence: “I’ll go hopefully in a bit.” And in this case, you could easily move “hopefully” to the front of the sentence: “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit.”

He thinks that “going hopefully” is the same thing as “Hopefully, I’ll go”! What phenomenal ignorance from someone claiming to guard English against degradation and criticizing others for their wrongheadedness! They are not the same. “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit” means “I hope that I’ll go in a bit” or “I hope that in a bit, I’ll (be able to) go.” In contrast, “I’ll go hopefully in a bit” means that when I go in a bit, which is certain to occur, it will be in a hopeful manner. He thinks that putting hopefully in that spot makes it modify the adverbial phrase in a bit, but it does not. It is modifying the verb go in that sentence. If he meant to express the idea that he will go (for certain) and that he hopes this going will occur in a bit, he needs a well-placed comma: “I’ll go, hopefully in a bit.” Another punctuation change could express the same idea: “I’ll go (hopefully in a bit).” And this sentence can be rephrased, “I will go, and hopefully, this will occur in a bit.” The placement of hopefully and commas in his example can create sentences with three distinct meanings, all of which are, or should be, clear to all native English speakers and which exemplify the glorious flexibility and versatility of the English language. Let’s list them for ease of understanding:

1. “Hopefully, I’ll go in a bit.” Or: “I’ll go in a bit, hopefully.” (I hope that I’ll (be able to) go in a bit.)
2. “I’ll go hopefully in a bit.” (I will definitely go in a bit, and I will perform this going in a hopeful manner.)
3. “I’ll go, hopefully in a bit.” Or: “I’ll go (hopefully in a bit).” (I will definitely go, and I hope this will occur in a bit.)

Now that I’ve corrected his punctuation and adverb usage, we can plainly see that Rrhain is trying to use hopefully to express his own hope (example 1 or 3), and he justifies this by noting that in a bit is an adverb and then claiming that hopefully is modifying this adverb.

Again, no, it isn’t, except in my third example above, which is the only one he failed to type and which I had to write for him. In the first example, hopefully is modifying the whole ensuing clause, to express the speaker’s/author’s hope that the whole clause will come true. Rrhain refuses to accept this, so he tries rearranging the words to show that the sentential Hopefully in example 1 is actually modifying the adverb in a bit, as in example 3, but these sentences mean different things. Hopefully absolutely does not apply to the same group of words in examples 1 and 3. The only way to express the hope that “I’ll go in a bit” will come true using the word “hopefully” is by using it in a sentential role. Any other role applies hope to only a subset of the words, changing the meaning of the sentence.

I don’t know exactly why a preposition (in), an article (a), and a noun (bit) are perfectly fine to function together as a phrasal adverb but hopefully is not acceptable as a sentential adverb. I also don’t know why using Hopefully to express hope that an entire clause or sentence will come true is wrong but using hopefully to express hope that a time-adverb (such as in a bit) will prove true is OK. Either way, the speaker/author is injecting his own personal perspective into the sentence in a “sneaky” way without using the word I (or the far inferior One), which some people object to, possibly Rrhain. I think this “adverbs can only modify verbs, adjectives, and adverbs” rule sounds more like a post-hoc rationalization and extension of their specific opposition to sentential hopefully, in which they’ve tried to extend this position to a general rule that applies to all adverbs. They rail against sentential hopefully, they realize other sentential adverbs are used in identical ways, they want to at least appear consistent and logical, so they created a rule out of thin air to extend their fetish to other adverbs in the name of consistency, against all evidence.

This rule is unnecessarily limiting to the English language and inhibits, not enhances, clarity.

As the coup de grace in my exposure of Rrhain as a cartoonishly ignorant, illogically pedantic anti-Hopefully fetishist, Rrhain uses the adverb Specifically in a sentential role, not modifying any specific verb, adjective, or (phrasal) adverb, in one of his own sentences in the natural course of his writing, i.e., outside of his fabricated example sentences. He writes: “Specifically, the adverb is not modifying the clause but rather a specific part of the sentence, either the verb or an adjective.” There is no way to construe that sentence to claim that Specifically is modifying either is or modifying or any other specific word or phrase. Rather, it is modifying the entire thought conveyed by the sentence. This sentential adverb means To be more specific, and what follows is Rrhain being more specific. The entire sentence and not any one verb is described by Specifically.

This use of sentential Specifically is perfectly clear, logical, and grammatical—features it shares with sentential Hopefully and every other sentential adverb and adverbial phrase that good writers and speakers have used for hundreds of years. And even bad writers and armchair grammarians, apparently.

At the end of his first comment, Rrhain does make a good point that hopefully’s sentential use is more of an interjection, sort of prefacing the whole sentence, but he is very confused about the roles that adverbs play in his own examples.

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3 Responses to Anti-Hopefully crusaders are hopeless

  1. Steve High says:

    For a considerable time in the 1970s, the adverb “hopefully” was used to nauseating excess, much as “Awkward” or “Weird” is used today. Teachers inveighed against it as against screeching the chalk on the blackboard, and for the same reason.

    Regrettably, opposition to “hopefully” as a sentence adverb hardened into granite. I encourage my students to avoid it, mostly out of habit, but I obviously have no issue with “regrettably.”

    Go figure. I must be weird.

  2. SB says:

    This very page–your writing–is filled with incorrect grammar and poor phrasing in general.

    Example: “Hopefully, the AP won’t make future concessions that actually do harm usage.”
    Correction: “Hopefully, the AP won’t make future concessions that harm usage.” The word “do” is completely unnecessary for conveying your concerns. However, weak writers such as yourself tend to lean on these sort of “crutch words” because you tend to write just as atrociously as you speak; and you invariably insert all sorts of unnecessary pauses, gaps, “crutch words”, “uhhhhs”, “duhhhhs”, and other verbal nonsense into everyday speech because you have nothing very important to say anyway.

    Other signs of literary laziness include: use of “do” as a catch-all verb (e.g., “I’m going to do my taxes now.” instead of “I’m going to complete my taxes now.”), incorrect use of “only” (e.g., your statement, “The objection is that ‘hopefully’ should only modify specific verbs …” instead of the correct, “The objection is that ‘hopefully’ should modify only specific verbs …”), and, perhaps worst of all, use of “get/got” (and variations thereof) in place of actual verbs.

    For God’s sake, buy a thesaurus! The English language is filled with thousands of brilliant, beautiful, awe-inspiring, majestic, insidious, intrinsic, clarifying, and mind-exploding … real … fucking … words! Use them!!!