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There was something anticlimactic to the recent news that The Associated Press Stylebook -- the guide to grammar and language usage at many newspapers -- will no longer object to the use of "hopefully" as a floating sentence adverb, as in, "Hopefully, the Giants will win the division." It was like seeing an obituary for someone you assumed must have died around the time that "Hootenanny" went off the air.

But these usage fixations have a tenacious hold. William Safire, former "On Language" columnist for The New York Times Magazine, once described the "hopefully" rule as the litmus test that separated the language snobs from the language slobs. And the rule still has plenty of fans, to judge from the nearly 700 comments on The Washington Post's story about the AP's decision.

That floating "hopefully" had been around for more than 30 years in respectable venues when a clutch of usage critics, including E.B. White, came down on it hard in the 1960s. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications. The historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it "the most horrible usage of our times" -- a singular distinction in the age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention, "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."

You wouldn't want to take the critics' hysteria at face value. A usage can be really irritating, but that's as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused "hopefully" or "literally" makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that. What it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.

Of course, even if you find the tone of these complaints histrionic, you can often sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing "enormity" with "enormousness," or "disinterested" with "uninterested." It doesn't herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.

But the fixation with "hopefully" is different. There's no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it's a free-floating modifier that isn't attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker's attitude. But floating modifiers are mother's milk to English grammar -- nobody objects to using "sadly," "thankfully" or "frankly" in exactly the same way.

Or people complain that "hopefully" doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping. But neither does "It is to be hoped that," the phrase critics offer as a substitute. That's what usage fetishism can drive you to -- you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can't hear what it's really saying. "I hope that" doesn't mean the same thing that "hopefully" does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction.

So why did critics decide to turn this useful little adverb into the era's biggest bugaboo? Well, you could argue that the very unreasonableness of the objections to "hopefully" helps make the rule an efficient badge of belonging. Somebody who came to "hopefully" armed only with a keen ear for grammar and style would have no way of knowing that anybody had a problem with it. You can only know about it if you're the sort of person who reads usage guides or who has tea with others who do. It's not enough just to be literate; you have to have pretensions to being one of the literati.

The prejudice against "hopefully" will no doubt survive, zombie-style, among the scribbling classes for quite some time. But it's the last of its breed. People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity. Safire, who died in 2009, was the last guru invested with that kind of authority. But he actually came round to accepting the floating "hopefully" early on. So should the rest of us.

There will be grousing from the defiant 1-percenters. But hopefully, my dear, we won't give a damn.

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is the author of "The Years of Talking Dangerously." This is adapted from a piece for NPR's "Fresh Air."


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