What is the controversy that “hopefully” caused?

Typewriter, AP Stylebook, HopefullyLast week, the Associated Press Stylebook announced a significant change in their guidelines: the word “hopefully” (as in “it is hoped”) can now appear in newspapers. According to the Washington Post, this makes them barbarians.

You may be wondering, what is the AP Stylebook? And why does it matter? Groups of professionals compile style guides to standardize editing practices within their field. (Did you have to write a bibliography in MLA Style in college? That was based on the style guide of the Modern Language Association, a consortium of English professors.) The American Psychological Association (APA) maintains a style guide for psychologists. The Chicago Manual of Style is the go-to guide for magazine and book editors. The AP Stylebook recommends writing standards for journalists; so potentially, their decision impacts every newspaper in the country.

Style guides, like dictionaries, are often attacked from two sides. In one camp, strict prescriptivists do not want written language to conform easily and quickly to the constant changes that occur in spoken speech. Rather, they’d prefer the style guide suggest what is best, not what is common. Batting for the other team, descriptivists think style suggestions should shift based on how language is used every day. If people say “can’t”, writers should use the contraction.

Style guides typically discuss grammar and punctuation, and they even weigh in on capitalization standards. However, as the web transforms how we communicate, standards change rapidly. Take the word webpage. Like the word Internet, many style guides recommend capitalizing the word Webpage. Then in the latest update to the Chicago Manual of Style in 2010, they suggested that the words web, website, and web page be lowercase, while Internet and World Wide Web remain uppercase.

So what does this have to do with the word hopefully? For four hundred years, the word “hopefully” was an adverb that meant “in a hopeful manner” as in the sentence, “We worked hopefully and energetically, thinking we might finish first.” In the 1930s, it began to operate as a sentence adverb meaning “it is hoped.” Here’s an example: “Hopefully, we will get to the show on time.” For an unknown reason, the editing establishment rejected this shift in spoken speech, even though other words (like curiously, certainly, and frankly) are also sentence adverbs. The word “hopefully” has remained in ambiguous territory and was not commonly used in print, though it is very common in spoken language.

Even though the AP has now accepted it, hopefully-the-sentence-modifier still irks some. Not only did the Washington Post say, “The barbarians have finally done it”, but Rob Reinalda called it “lazy and subjective.” Apparently, using “hopefully” makes you a lazy barbarian. We’d hope not.

What do you think about this change? Is it about time? Or a crying shame?

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