In this corner, we never drop our guard, even on national holidays. So I lace up my gloves and prepare to take on Patricia Myers, columnist for Publishers' Auxiliary, a newspaper published here by the National Newspaper Association.
Patricia rises in defense of the misuse of "hopefully." It is hoped that I can make her see the light.
Patricia doesn't argue that wrong is right. In the sentence, "Hopefully, the rain will end soon," there is a clear wrong, and Patricia admits it. The word "hopefully" modifies rain, when the speaker really wants it to describe the mood of the person gazing at the sky. Rendered more carefully, Patricia points out that the sentence should read, "I hope that the rain will end soon."
However, several cousins of "hopefully" are misused every day, and few people so much as twitch, says Patricia. Take, for example, the phrase, "Luckily, the bear was killed before he attacked the little boy." As Patricia notes, you hardly mean that the bear was lucky.
But to Patricia, the more compelling argument is this: the popularity of "misused hopefully" has earned it a place in literate circles.
"We don't have another word that means the same thing," she writes. "Almost everyone uses it, it's understandable in its context and it's no more intrinsically illogical" than misuses of "fortunately," "happily" and "luckily." Therefore, open your arms and embrace it, citizenry.
Not this kid.
I don't believe a grammar book is a bible, setting forth immutable rules for all time. Words are born and die. Idioms wax and wane. Rules are forever being adjusted according to popular demand.
But to condone the misuse of "hopefully" is to condone imprecision. In "Hopefully, the rain will end soon," I'm pretty sure I know what the speaker or writer is trying to say. But I'm not as sure as I would be if the sentence was: "I hope that the rain will end soon."
Isn't the whole idea to communicate as clearly as we can? If a writer or speaker leaves unnecessary ambiguities, he'll soon find there's no one reading or listening.
Patricia is right in one respect. We don't have another word that means the same thing as the "incorrect" usage of "hopefully." But do we have to restrict the hunt for clarity to individual words? We have any number of phrases that would get across our wish that it would stop raining. Are we in such a hurry that only single words will do?
Finally, I'm unimpressed with the comparison of "hopefully" to the misuses of "fortunately," "happily" and "luckily." Reminds me of Richard Nixon's staff during Watergate. Remember how they defended the behavior of the White House "plumbers" by arguing that every administration bent or broke the rules? That didn't make it right, and it doesn't make the misuse of "hopefully" right.