thoughts on language, pt. 1

maybe i’m stuck in a ridiculous, wussy progressive, politically correct, liberal arts bubble.  by which, of course, i mean that’s precisely where i live.  with the caveat that i don’t necessarily devote a whole lot of time to consuming non-print media (i.e., radio, tv, the web, etc.).  but even given that little exposure, i was kinda surprised by the extraordinary amount of coverage given recently to the AP stylebook’s decision to amend their stance on “hopefully.”

my surprise existed on several levels, not the least significant of which was the fact that i didn’t know i was using the word “hopefully” wrong.  a lot.  and so was, basically, everyone else.  this has made me a little self-conscious.  for example, i now feel like there’s a pretty good chance i just used “basically” and “self-conscious” incorrectly.  this is somewhat troubling as someone who works professionally and volunteers as a writer/editor.

because i am a huge nerd, i remember with great fondness the galley meetings held for each issue of willow springs.  three successive meetings, each focused on a fresh draft and each lasting a looooong time.  frequently hours.  we adhered to style guidelines from AP, and chicago, and of our own making—but we used the american heritage dictionary specifically because it was “descriptive,” not “prescriptive.”

if you don’t already know the difference between descriptive and prescriptive, knowing the difference probably won’t make you care any more.  if you do know the difference, you probably have an adamant position on the issue and are prepared to defend it to the death (likely to come at the throttling hands of either someone on the other side of the argument, or someone who doesn’t care and just wishes you’d shut the hell up).

in any case, i always enjoyed the lively discussion in galley meetings over language and grammar, but in some ways it always felt like an exercise only we editors in the room cared about.  though i guess it’s easy to say our readers didn’t have to care about it, because we did the heavy lifting for them.  so i suppose i don’t mind that a fervent few take up the mantle as defenders of style & meaning & language.  we all benefit from their effort whether we know it or not.  i, for one, hope one of them can someday explain that use of “mantle” to me.

the ny times‘ city room blog suggested there was such an uproar about “hopefully” because

 Language, of course, is the soul of a culture.

a writer on said (on a tangential note)

 I die a little every time I see a “gonna” or “gotta”

i guess i fall somewhere between the hardliners & “slacking writers” bemoaned by the minnesota daily editorial board.  i go to absurd lengths to use a proper em dash whenever i’m typing.  i spellcheck my emails.  i have a barely controlled urge to correct others’ misuse of words and phrases.  and yet, i clearly renounce commonly held rules regarding capitalization when i feel like it.  my adherence to style rules is in direct proportion to my investment in the content i’m generating.  basically.

but i’m having a hard time getting on board with the grammar absolutists when they say things like this quote from geoff nunberg (the linguist contributor on NPR’s fresh air):

People get so worked up about the word that they can’t hear what it’s really saying. The fact is that “I hope that” doesn’t mean the same thing that hopefully does.

my response to that is, “well, actually, it kinda does mean the same thing (now).”  if the majority of language users understand a word to mean something, and use it that way, it shouldn’t be so shocking that the AP has formalized the will of the people, right?  because mob-rule is totally the way we should govern our language, just like our country.  (see earlier comment, re: defenders of style & meaning & language).

i don’t actually know where i’m going with this, so how about now i just turn it over to the master(s)?  enjoy this language usage showdown courtesy of dfw & humanities magazine author david skinner.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I wasn’t aware of this huge usage crisis surrounding hopefully, even though I am irritated when people use random incorrectly or substitute disinterested for uninterested.

    And what about inflammable?

    And what about ax for ask?

    Hopefully, I can become more outraged.

    What I really want to know, though, is when will a lot become alot?

    Unless we’re talking about real estate, no one knows what a lot is.

    Alot (as a word) is going to happen.

    The sooner the better, I think.

  • Amaris says:

    AP reversed the rule on hopefully back in April, so I was rather surprised to see it everywhere this week.

    When the final volume of DARE came out, it seemed like the general write-ups concluded “how quaint” that we now have a record of American regional English.

    The AHD debate spurred on by Joan Acocella’s “The English Wars” in the May 14 issue of the New Yorker (In it, she misunderstands the intros and explains them incorrectly. Covering academic debates creates a particular writing problem that we might as well call “the Gladwell Effect.” ), then Ryan Bloom’s fire-breathing “Inescapably, You’re Judged By Language” blog entry ranted against descriptivism.

    It’s kind of fun that linguistics is looking sexy in the public eye. You almost think it’d be good TV.

    But I don’t understand where the animosity against descriptivism is coming from (other than, obviously, the New Yorker).

    For creative writers, descriptivism is a natural fit. It’s important to listen to how people actually themselves.

    Geoffrey Pullum wrote this great little story for the Higher Chronicle’s Lingua Franca blog:
    “I treasured the story of a sociologist colleague at UC Santa Cruz, who found at his book’s proof stage that the long passages of oral testimony by illiterate Central American peasants, carefully translated into colloquial English, had all been “corrected” by the publisher’s copy editor into formal academic written English.”

    It’s actually dangerous to assume that all people express themselves in the same way, that Central American peasants would speak in the same way as American academics.

    We’ve been using hopefully instead of “it is to be hoped” for a long time–as well as splitting infinitives, using “their” as singular, gender-neutral (since the 15th century), and ending sentences on prepositions… Watch out–these rules will probably change at some point.

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