Common Stupid Mistakes. Custom Academic Writing



"Hopefully" and Other Controversies

As long as we are in the realm of the language snob, the other taboo besides the split infinitive that causes these folks to foam at the mouth is the misuse of the adverb "hopefully." The problem here is an interesting one. The protectors of the language fear that misuse of words ruins those words for everyone. And they are right. Just as the misuse of any liberty eventually leads to the loss of that liberty for us all, so the misuse of words leads to the destruction of our common literary heritage. Sometimes this does not matter. Sometimes it does. I personally regret the loss of "disinterested" as a word. It used to be a positive word Ever since your notorious headline " Clinton Vows to 'Never' Resign [front page, Feb. 7] I have waited for the flood of letters and the abject apology in the Ombudsman column for printing such a glaring split infinitive, not just in the body of some lengthy flood of text on an inside page, but at the very top of the front page in inch-high letters, where any impressionable child can see it.

Does the publication of this once-forbidden error signal an acceptance on the part of your paper? Does the lack of angry letters echo that concurrence on the part of your readers? If so, this is a moment in the evolution (or devolution) of the American tongue. The whole splitinfinitive rule always has been a bit ridiculous, depending as it does on the archaic fact that the infinitive in Latin was one word and thus not splittable. But English teachers and defenders of the grammatical faith have been perpetuating for generations the insistence that this rule be followed.

If in fact the nation's leading newspaper, and its powerful readership, have concluded that the split-infinitive prohibition is now null and void, one needs to be informed so we will be free to pass the news on to our students and to boldly go into the uncertain future where no English teacher has gone before.

Judges were supposed to be disinterested. Today it has come to mean "uninterested." But we already have a term for uninterested. We still need disinterested. But I cannot use it in its original meaning and expect to be understood. Most literate people fight stubbornly to retain the unique meaning of "unique." This word means one and only one. Therefore, you cannot have highly unique, very unique, more unique, or any of the other ways in which people use the word to mean "rare." We already have "rare"; let's keep "unique" unique.

"Hopefully," however, exists in that gray area between the snobs and the slobs. According to the grammar purists, "hopefully" is an adverb defining an action to be used only when an action is done with hope or in a hopeful manner, as in such sentences as "Hopefully, he took the exam" or "Hopefully, he bought a lottery ticket." But most slobs, and most of us are slobs, use it in place of "I hope." If I say, "Hopefully, I took the exam," wouldn't you answer, "Don't you know whether you did?" The sentence is ambiguous and can be read either way. William Safire, the author of the "On Language" column for the New York Times and one of the nation's leading experts on all things pertaining to the American use of words, is willing to let the original use of "hopefully" as an adverb be replaced by its use as a substitute for "I hope." In fact, he can do little to stop it. The change is here. But in English departments across the country, purists are fighting fiercely like King Canute to stem the oncoming tide. If you do not want to be a statistic in their struggle, be careful when you use "hopefully."

Thank you.

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