This morning Jesse Sheidlower (@jessesheidlower) tweeted: “Today in ‘Am I that old?’: Entire class of graduate writing students, not one had ever heard of a usage controversy about ‘hopefully’. WTF? Thoughts, @BCDreyer @ArrantPedantry @JezzB2 @PeterSokolowski @johnemcintyre + anyone else?”
Pedantry has its fashions, and the hopefully shibboleth has grown long in the tooth. Even the Associated Press Stylebook, whom no one has ever accused of being avant-garde about usage, now countenances it as a sentence adverb.
Hopefully came into disrepute in time to be included in a revision of The Elements of Style, E.B. White apparently not having taken notice of it in the original. Before hopefully, in the 1940s and 1950s, contact was widely disparaged. “Contact is not a verb in this house,” Nero Wolfe pronounces in one of Rex Stout’s murder mysteries. (In another, Wolfe burns a copy of Webster’s Third in a fireplace because, he says, it allows imply and infer to be used interchangeably.)
Ten years ago Jan Freeman published a book about Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, with commentary on Bierce’s strictures. As her notes show, it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to determine the reasons for Bierce’s objections to what today are perfectly ordinary usages.
And that, perhaps, is the point. There doesn’t have to be a reason. Or rather, not a reason embedded in the language itself. The objections are never about the words themselves, but about the people who use them. People in advertising or business. Young people on social media. People from a different class or region. Whoever.
That, after all, is why English has shibboleth: The meaning of the word itself is irrelevant, because the word is simply a marker to divide Us from Them.
And sticklers, whose identities are propped up by the assertion that their command of the language is superior, depend on these markers. So hopefully fades quietly into ordinary, unobjectionable usage. Trust me, they’ll find another.