Everyone understands that fashions come and go. We can live in hope that the menswear of the 1970s will never return. Those neckties as wide as lobster bibs. The plaid jackets. Leisure suits.

What many people writing about language fail to understand is that fashions change among the sticklers as well, the unsophisticated reader picking up any commentary on language from the past century and imagining that its strictures embody eternal truths.


Consider due to. In 1926, writing in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler said flatly: "Due to is often used by the illiterate as though it has passed, like owing to, into a mere compound preposition." And so through the generations, language commenters insisted that due could only be used as an adjective—The cancellation was due to stormy weather—and never as a compound preposition—Due to stormy weather, the event was canceled. Much ink was spilled on the mystical distinction between due to and owing to, in a manner that would have done credit to the Scholastics.

And yet English is our language, and if we want to make due to a compound preposition, and enough of us do so over time, it damn well becomes a compound preposition. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that in 1966 the compound preposition was rejected by eighty-four percent of its usage panel, but by 2001 sixty percent found it innocuous.

Permit me to say this again: English does not exist as an entity on some plane above its users. It is rather what we collectively make it, altering the meanings of words, coining new ones, shifting words from one part of speech to another, and more. English is crowdsourced.

A more recent fashion example is the hopefully mania of the 1960s, which had crested by the 1980s and is now steadily receding.

Hopefully was an innocuous little adverb that had plodded along for centuries without drawing remark, until the sense "in a hopeful manner" was supplemented in the 1960s by the Wrong People (probably in business or advertising) with the sense "I hope," "we hope," "it is hoped that."

The entry in Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage from 1965 drips with scorn: "It appeals to speakers and writers who do not think about what they are saying and pick up VOGUE WORDS by reflex action." Its "tiresome frequency." "How readily the rotten apple will corrupt the barrel." The cry was taken up by The New Yorker, which ran a cartoon in which one customer in a bar demands of another: "Hopefully-wise? Did I understand you to say hopefully-wise?"

Theodore Bernstein's Careful Writer agreed: "But regrettably hopefully is not equal to the burden sometimes placed upon it. What is needed is a word like hopably, which is not here being nominated for the job." By 1980 John Bremner had discerned which way the wind was blowing, and in Words on Words he allowed himself to think that hopably might in fact take root and diminish the "silly, offensive, ambiguous, soft, nonsensical, solecistic use of hopefully."

Messrs. Follett, Bernstein, and Bremner have all since paid their coins to Charon, hopably does not appear in any of the five dictionaries I have just consulted, and the Concise Oxford says that the "it is hoped" sense is now the dominant one. The usage note in American Heritage says: "It is not easy to explain why people selected this word for disparagement. Its use can be justified by the similar use of many other adverbs, such as mercifully and frankly. … And though this use of hopefully may have been a vogue word back in the 1960s, it has long since lost any hint of jargon or pretentiousness for the general reader. In fact, its widespread use reflects popular recognition of its usefulness; there is no precise substitute."*

In 2012 even the Associated Press Stylebook, never in the vanguard on usage, dropped its prohibition on hopefully, and there were tremors among the remaining sticklers. (For a fuller account, I recommend Geoffrey Pullum's " 'Hopefully': Five Decades of foolishness" at Lingua Franca.

The explanation that eludes American Heritage is hinted at in Jeremy Butterfield's edition of Fowler, published last year, in which he says that anyone who would use hopefully in the current sense would be wise to observe caution when writing for "a language faddist."

Though language faddists tend to talk as if they are struggling to uphold eternal verities, it is not hard to see their fads fade over time. In William Cullen Bryant's "Index Expurgatorius" at the New York Herald in the nineteenth century, we find the locus classicus for such fads, the progenitor of such animadversions as Lake Superior State University's annual "Banned Words" list.

Bryant deplores "beat (for defeat)," "bogus," "compete," "couple (for two)," "en route," "House (for House of Representatives)," "jeopardize," "located," "pants (for pantaloons)," "repudiate (for reject or disown)," "taboo," and "talented," among others. Anyone here still holding the line on pantaloons?

More recently, the prejudice against contact as a verb, a watchword among sticklers in the 1940s and 1950s, has evaporated. And it is within the past thirty years that the newspaper prohibition of gay for homosexual has been grudgingly abandoned.

It's doubtful that many language faddists, impervious as they are to evidence and argument, are reading this post. You, however, are likely to fall under the sway of the language faddists who inhabit the classroom and the corner office. You might not want to accept their strictures uncritically.


We live and learn, but not long and not much.

*"No precise substitute." Tell me the last time you heard a native speaker of American English utter "it is hoped that."