Lexicon Valley

When Did We Start Caring About “Hopefully”? 250 Years of English Usage Advice.

Photo illustration by Gretchen McCulloch, image courtesy Wikimedia.

There’s a fair chance that at some point you’ve been told that you’re using hopefully wrong: Purists insist that it can only mean “in a hopeful manner” and not “it is to be hoped that.” But who are these purists, and when did people first start giving this advice? More generally, there’s a lot of advice about English usage that we largely take for granted, from split infinitives to dangling participles, but where did anyone get these ideas in the first place?

We can trace back this history to sources much older than your eighth-grade English teacher by looking at usage guides. These books that tell you how you should write English range from the venerable, like Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, to the modern, like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. When usage guides from different eras or countries agree or disagree with each other, this tells us something about which changes in the English language were happening when and how noticeable they were.

But we can do better than merely comparing a few guides offhand. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on a database of more than 75 usage guides and 123 usage problems in the English language, spanning a period of nearly 250 years. My two assistants and I call this project the Hyper Usage Guide of English or HUGE database and it’s based out of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

For an example of what HUGE can do, let’s go back to hopefully. As I mentioned above, the use of hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped that” is criticized on the grounds that “hopefully” can only mean “in a hopeful manner,” but when did this criticism start? It seems to have begun in Wilson Follett’s 1966 Modern American Usage, in which he says:*

What hopefully refuses to convey in idiomatic English is the desirability of the hoped-for event. […] Such a hopefully is un-English and eccentric; it is to be hoped is the natural way to express what is meant. […] The special badness of hopefully is not alone that it strains the sense of -ly to the breaking point, but that it appeals to speakers and writers who do not think about what they are saying and pick up vogue words by reflex action.

The Corpus of Historical American English, which documents actual usage of American English between 1810 and 2009, confirms claims in the literature that this use of hopefully increased significantly in the 1960s, which is possibly why it made it into usage guides at that specific time in history.

Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct, from thirty years later, says:

Hopefully it won’t be necessary for us to go to such extremes. […] Strictly speaking, hopefully means full of hope […] Certainly, the use shown above is very common in speech […] In formal writing, however, it is advisable to avoid this usage—at least for now.  Another few years may see it gain full acceptability.

And perhaps it has, though as a usage issue, hopefully has not quite left us: It still appears in even the most recent titles in our database. The Corpus of Historical American English shows that another significant increase in the use of hopefully occurred in the 2000s, which may explain why it has kept a hold of our collective attention into the 21st century. In recent usage guides, hopefully is discussed with divergent attitudes. On the liberal end, we have Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage from 2003, which says:

This word has meant “it is to be hoped” for a very long time, and those who insist it can only mean “in a hopeful fashion” display more hopefulness than realism.

On the conservative end, in 2010, Simon Heffer’s notoriously intolerant Strictly English says:

hopefully, has been extracted from its correct usage […] What the writer meant was “it is to be hoped,” “I hope,” or “one hopes” […] This tiresome usage is now so ubiquitous that those who object to it are sometimes dismissed as pedants. It remains wrong, and only a barbarous writer with a low estimation of his readers would try to pass it off as respectable prose.

Despite corpus evidence, which shows that about 75% of all uses of hopefully are actually used to convey the attitude “it is to be hoped,” Heffer considers the use simply wrong, and blames American influence in British English for it.

In Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (2008), Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty gives advice that is both factual and strategic:

Although it isn’t wrong, don’t start a sentence with hopefully—too many people believe it’s wrong.

The HUGE database contains similar levels of detail for 122 other usage issues throughout the ages, including data: singular vs. plural; different to, from or than; they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; and could of for could have. Although describing them all here would be a book in itself, more on these types of issues and how we made the database can be found at the project blog, Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public.

One of the general issues that we’ve noticed in creating HUGE is that newer usage guides tend to discuss a greater number of usage problems than older ones do. This suggests that more usage problems are “discovered” than disappear, either by being “forgotten” about or resolved. Furthermore, the database mainly contains usage problems relating to grammatical issues rather than word-choice or spelling. It seems then, that grammatical issues don’t easily “go out of fashion,” something that happens more easily with problems of word choice, spelling or pronunciation. The number of problems probably increases because writers of usage guides base themselves on existing guides and grammars, and add their pet peeves. What also plays a role is that usage guides continue to mention specific usage items, even if just to mention that they are no longer problematic—although if you have to explicitly mention that something is no longer an issue, it clearly still is.

Like the linguist Anne Curzan, whose TEDx talk asks us to critically examine who’s making a dictionary just as we would consider the author of any other text, HUGE shows us how even published advice-givers aren’t a monolith. What we consider “standard English” changes from decade to decade, and the source of a usage guide can be a well-balanced panel of experts, some crank who just gets hilariously angry about how kids talk these days, or anyone in between.

*Correction: August 7, 2014. This post originally misspelled Follett.