Hopefully, this is the last we'll write about 'hopefully'

Sorry, L.A. Times: The hottest media item this week is the AP Stylebook's surrender to the colloquial sense of "hopefully." Cleverly, Clyde Haberman uses a sentence adverb to begin every paragraph of his story about the change, demonstrating that the prohibition was bunk in the first place, even if pouncing on such "errors" kept many fine copy editors employed (and, by extension, manufacturers of cardigans in business).

That said, he notes, The Times itself isn't giving any ground on this one:

Incidentally, “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage,” while acknowledging that “hopefully” is an adverb that “inflames passions,” cites surveys showing that “large majorities” of writers and teachers cling to the more restrictive use. So does The Times, and no change is contemplated for now, said Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards.

Monica Hesse described the fracas over "hopefully" as an emblem of the eternal struggle between "prescriptivists, who believe that rules of language should be preserved at any cost, and descriptivists, who believe that word use should reflect how people actually talk." She has a powerful ally in this view: Copy-editing demigod John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, who writes that nothing's stopping people horrified by the change from maintaining their baseless views in their own copy: "You don't like it? Don't use it," he writes. "But you don't get to conflate your idiosyncratic linguistic preferences with the Law and the Prophets."

Mary Elizabeth Williams pushes back at McIntyre: "Maybe for some, the outrage over the new official recognition of 'hopefully' is mere snobbery, but I suspect it’s simple grief for grammar in general and its degradation in classrooms and newsrooms," she writes. "I want an AP Stylebook that I can flout, not one that throws up its hands because nobody cares about it any longer anyway."

But just as the world seems to be coming down all around prescriptivists' ears, a new language controversy blooms: What's the correct use of the word "trolling"? Was Monica Hesse trolling Catholics when she called prescriptivists "Catholic school graduates, schooled in the dark arts of sentence diagramming and self-righteousness"? Was Haberman trolling them with those sneaky adverbs? Am I, an employee of the high-minded Poynter Institute, unethically trying to squeeze a few more pageviews out of their umbrage myself (while splitting an infinitive, no less)?

Andy Bodleargues is for a more precise use of "trolling," whose meaning he fears is getting diluted. The word, which sprang from early Internet culture, doesn't mean "bully," Bodle writes. He draws a nice distinction between a "troll" (someone who tries to get a rise out of people) and a "flamer" (someone who insults people, and a word I have not used w/r/t the Internet since the early 2000s).

To give some examples, a troll might constantly change the subject of a discussion topic for the hell of it; a "flamer" would insult someone because he disagreed with them. A troll might suggest that a previous poster in a forum was using an argument popular in Hitler's Germany; a flamer would call the poster a Nazi.

Bodle traces the word "trolling" not to the name of a mythical creature but to the Old French "troller," which he says means "to hunt." If correct, that's rather accurate. It is to be hoped that his research into such less-venerable linguistic controversies continues.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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