THE USE OF hopefully to mean 'it is to be hoped,' as in hopefully we'll get there before dark, is grammatically justified by analogy to the similar uses of happily and mercifully. However, the usage is by now such a bugbear to traditionalists that it is best avoided on grounds of civility, if not logic.

-- The American Heritage Dictionary B

UYING A DICTIONARY is the closest most Americans

ever come to choosing a household god -- a dictionary is not so much a book as a paper oracle that sits on the bookshelf immutable, unimpeachable, inscrutable, and ignored except in times of trouble. So it's nice to begin this review of two dictionaries by pointing out that the usage note on the word hopefully printed above, taken from The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition), not only contradicts the usage note of the same dictionary printed in 1975, but proposes a criterion of acceptability (civility rather than logic) which is just plain silly.

The American Heritage first came out in 1969, and even then it was a strange book. It was edited by William Morris, an extremely grumpy word-hater, and it was blessed (or saddled) with a usage panel -- a group that was on the average old and male and white and utterly benighted in its ignorance. The new edition first of all does not have Morris as an editor. In fact, it has no editor at all -- merely a "director of editorial operations," a much more complicated name for a person whose main duty seems to have been keeping the staff from warring openly in print. Or letting the staff war openly in print.

The book starts with two statements on usage, one by the distinguished linguist Dwight Bolinger, the dictionary's "special consultant in usage," insisting that prevailing usage must be the chief determinant of acceptability. Next comes a contradictory essay by that well-known expert-at- large William F. Buckley Jr., member of the usage panel, claiming that acceptability is a prize bestowed by him and his friends, the "congenitally gifted." Buckley's essay is not worth bothering with, but it is interesting that he insists the word spokesperson can never be acceptable, since The American Heritage Dictionary lists spokesperson as a perfectly standard and acceptable word, without the slightest indication that anyone ever objected to it. Is Buckley arguing with the dictionary he is introducing to us? Is someone sabotaging the decisions of the usage panel? We'll probably never know.

The chairman of the usage panel, an entirely new position, is Edwin Newman, author of two books attacking ordinary American usage and a tireless defender of his idiosyncratic ideas of correctness. It is interesting that Bolinger, consultant to Newman's panel, once attacked Newman in print as a "medicine man" -- a kind of quack doctor of language. The meetings between the chairman and the special consultant must have been wonderful to see, and perhaps they are responsible for the oddities of this book. For example, Newman in Strictly Speaking insists that "Different than rather than different from is wrong," a statement utterly without linguistic foundation. The American Heritage Dictionary, a book which claims to be "the only dictionary that offers sound advice on how to use the language," says -- nothing. This is the only modern dictionary I know of which makes no mention of the fact that "different" is constructed with "than," "from" and (especially in England) "to." Dropping the note probably settled the struggle over this word as gracefully as possible -- but a dictionary is there to tell us facts, not save faces.

The major argument against usage panels is the dictionary itself: if ey are you need a new edition to correct the old panel every seven years or so, then the customer will do better buying a nonprescriptive dictionary (Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate, for example) and getting his cues on usage from the language of those around him, as our greatest writers do. Sometimes, The American Heritage usage notes take on the tone of exasperated argument rather than explanation: contradicting the old edition's insistence on everybody/he, some wiseguy writes: "it is simply not English to say Everybody left in a hurry. He took his coat with him." The note then goes on to recommend we recast those sentences this way: "Everybody left in a hurry, taking his coat with him." To me this sounds like a lot of people running off somewhere carrying some poor man and his coat, but maybe it is English.

The American Heritage defines words differently than other dictionaries do -- instead of giving the oldest meaning first, it starts with the "current central meaning." In the dictionary's opinion. You can test your opinion against the dictionary's by looking up the word "livid," the current central meaning of which is supposed to be "discolored, as with a bruise, black-and-blue," a meaning all but obsolete in contemporary nontechnical usage.

The definitions themselves are often confusing. "Go-no- go," which Merriam-Webster defines as "being or related to a required decision to continue or stop a course of action," becomes in The American Heritage this elegant mouthful: "Of, pertaining to, or requiring the outcome of a parameter in order to stop or continue a course of action." For clarity, give me Merriam-Webster. And I don't think anyone will get much practical help from the usage notes in The American Heritage until this schizophrenic dictionary finally makes up its mind to choose Bolinger and the linguists or Newman and Buckley. You can't serve both God and Mammon.

Not all Websters are Merriam-Webster. The Webster Illustrated Dictionary, published by Doubleday and no relation to Merriam-Webster, is also out in a new edition. It too has usage notes, which have the advantage of reflecting a unified point of view about language, and which are usually more gentle, though frequently more conservative, than those in The American Heritage. William Buckley would like this dictionary better -- it does not contain the word "spokesperson." It does not contain "go-no-go" either, indicating the problem may not be theoretical but practical: a dictionary ought to pay better attention to new words. The usage notes are hard to find in any dictionary, and harder than usual here -- looking for advice on everyone/he, I tried everyone, he, anyone, they, their, and then finally gave up. What difference does it make what a usage note says -- everybody can do what they want anyway, can't they? And if your dictionary is silly enough to disagree with that, wait a few years and buy the new edition. Maybe they'll change their minds. Who knows?