Hopefully, I can get a ruling.

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There are two kinds of people. Those who don't take issue with this post's title, and those now compelled to send me hate mail.

Five years ago, I had no idea the second camp existed. Setting out on a quest for grammar excellence, I had picked up a book called Woe Is I. Subtitled "The Grammarphobe's Guide To Better English In Plain English," it's the work of Patricia T. O'Connor, who honed her skills as editor of The New York Times Book Review. This would be my grammar bible, O'Connor's word gospel.

One lesson stood out "“ I'd been misusing hopefully all these years. I was bewildered. Like the time I found out jean shorts weren't cool. In both cases, I had one question. When did this happen? In both cases, that question painted me even more clueless.

When I stumbled across a second edition last week, I noticed a startling reversal. Take a look.

Woe Is I, 1998 (paperback)
hopefully. By now it's probably hopeless to resist the misuse of hopefully. Strictly speaking, there's only one way to use it correctly "“ as an adverb meaning "in a hopeful manner." In the time it takes you to read this sentence, hopefully will be misused at least once by every man, woman and child in the United States. Whether we like it or not "“ and I don't "“ hopefully seems to be joining that class of introductory words that we use not to describe a verb, which is what adverbs usually do, but to describe our own attitude toward the statement that follows. Join the crowd and abuse hopefully if you want. I can't stop you. But maybe if enough of us preserve the original meaning it can be saved. One can only hope.

Woe Is I, 2004 (paperback)
hopefully. These days, it's hopeless to resist the evolution of hopefully. Purists used to insist (and some still do) that there's only one way to use it correctly "“ as an adverb meaning "in a hopeful manner." If the holdouts had their way, nobody would use hopefully to replace a phrase like "it is hoped" or "let us hope." But here in the real world, language changes, and upright citizens have been using hopefully in that looser way for ages. It's time to admit that hopefully has joined that class of introductory words (like fortunately, honestly, and others) that we use not to describe our attitude toward the statement that follows. The technical term for them in sentence adverbs. Be aware that some sticklers still take a narrow view of hopefully. Will they ever join the crowd? One can only hope.

O'Connor reminds me of an overwhelmed parent, giving up on curfew enforcement.

In my first month as a mental_floss blogger, I've been quite impressed by the grammatical prowess of our readers. So let me tap into your collective expertise. If you used hopefully the way I did in the title, would you be able to sleep?

Let us hope you can help.

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September 19, 2006 - 1:45pm
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