Friday, December 09, 2005
‘On Language’ 12/7: A Usage Guide for Language Disputes
The introduction to “The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style” points out that English has always had “conflict between ongoing language change and the conventions of publishing,” because the uses and meanings of words are constantly evolving.
In some cases, the editors of the guide take issue with the Usage Panel.
The case of “hopefully” as a so-called “sentence adverb” (as in, “Hopefully, they’ll go soon”) brings up another disagreement between the guide’s editors and their panel’s verdict. Picky purists insist that “hopefully” should only mean “full of hope,” and that “We hope” or “It is to be hoped that” should be used in other cases. Opposition to this use of “hopefully” has risen among the panel over the years.
The guide points out that nobody seems to mind when “mercifully” or “frankly” are used as sentence adverbs (as in, “Frankly, he bothers me”). In fact, the same panel that frowns on “hopefully” approves, by a vast majority, the similar use of “mercifully.” The guide says there’s no good grammatical reason to reject one and accept the other.
“It would seem, then, that it is not the use of `hopefully’ as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the panel,” the guide concludes. “Rather, `hopefully’ seems to have taken on a life of its own as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage.”
Nunberg says that while the panel has generally grown more lenient on many usage questions over the years, some words such as “hopefully” are stigmatized as telltale signs of oblivion or indifference to standards of formal English.
The Power of Puns
Never underestimate the power of puns. What do these illustrate about language?
1. Two antennas meet on a roof, fall in love and get married. The
ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.
2. Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says, “I’ve lost my
electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m
3. A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I’ll serve
you, but don’t start anything.”