Grammar cops

Maybe you heard, word nerds are rebelling against the Associated Press. The AP recently released its latest Stylebook and – among other changes – declared the word “hopefully” an adjective.

I know! Time for pitchforks and torches, right? Writing on Salon’s website, Mary Elizabeth Williams explains this latest outrage:

Perhaps you are the sort of person who wasn’t aware that saying things like, “Hopefully, it won’t rain this weekend” has long been considered a grammatical faux pas. One hopes that you received a deeper language-arts education than that. “Hopefully” is an adverb. An adverb, I tells ya, one that means to do something in a hopeful manner.

[groan] We all know people like this. We may, in fact, be people like this. At least Williams acknowledges why the AP made this change:

For decades, however, the word has also been a common shorthand for “I hope.”

And there’s the rub: because there are more than half a billion people using English every day, the language and its rules change. Like a river flowing over stones, common usage tends to smooth out the rough parts.

If you’re careful to use the correct version of “who” and “whom,” great, but you’ve probably noticed you’re in an ever-shrinking minority. And there are plenty of people who will point out that you – even with all your grammatical knowledge and discipline – don’t write or speak like English users did 100 years ago.

Beneath this urge to police the way we use our language, the most obdurate grammarians ride an undercurrent of something like elitism (if not the real thing). Holier-than-thou criticism abounds among these folk as they size up misusers of English. To me, a grammatical error is like using the wrong utensil at a formal affair. I don’t care which type of fork launches the mashed potatoes so long as they end up on the face of my target. (Yes, you could say this sentence contains a grammatical error if you also say “they” refers to “fork.” I say “they” refers to “mashed potatoes.” If you’d like to hash this out, invite me to your next formal affair.)

For her part, Williams says it’s not snobbery that’s causing her to dig in her heels over “hopefully”-as-adjective, it’s grief over our collective disinterest in the rules and our resulting failure to communicate properly:

Language keeps evolving, and that’s fine and natural. Yet as it does, I’ll still gaze hopefully toward a world in which we battle over our words and our rules because we know them so well, and love them so much.

OK. Fight the good fight and all that. But our time and energies can be put to better use. The online writing collective “The Tangential” asks these questions of would-be grammar cops:

1. Can this misuse be an example of the natural way that language changes over time?

2. Can this misuse actually be a placeholder for something that grammar holds imperfect answers for?

3. Is the misuse a result of the word being appropriated and changed by a counter-culture?

Good questions. You can find more info and The Tangential’s answers here.

And since you read this far, you’ll be happy to know Grant Barrett is coming to NCPR!

He’s co-host of “A Way With Words” – the show about the way we talk and write airs every Monday afternoon at 1:00.

This Thursday (April 26), Barrett will host a special, hour-long, call-in show about words and how we use them. Have you ever wondered if “Jeezum Crow” is a unique North Country-ism? How about that regional habit of dropping the “t” at the end of “what” or “but?” And why do people in our neck of the woods say “el’uh-man-TARRY” instead of “el’uh-MEN-tree” when talking about schools?

What words and sayings rattle around in your head? And who put them there? Family? Friends?

Call in with your questions and get some answers. The show starts Thursday morning at 11:00.

Find your local signal here or listen online at www.ncpr.org.

this misuse be an example of the natural way that language changes over time?

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8 Responses to “Grammar cops”

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  1. Ellen Beberman says:

    Jonathan, I heartily disagree. Fighting over the colloquial use of “hopefully” may be a distraction, but knowing – and understanding – when to use “who” and when to use “whom” shows a respect for the tools that you as a writer use. Misusing language through carelessness is like a carpenter prying open a paint can with a chisel – that’s not how it’s meant to be used.

    Good writing is not ostentatious. When I am reading, grammatical errors trip me up and interrupt my involvement with the writing in a way that is similar to seeing misspelled words. You probably don’t want to go back to the days before spell-check, do you?

    By the way, disinterested means non partisan, not taking sides;uninterested means not interested. We want judges to be disinterested; we don’t want them to be uninterested.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Hopefully, the word nerds don’t have a heart attack and don’t forget, “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should.”

  3. Jonathan Brown says:

    Ellen-

    That’s great. Like I said, fight the good fight, but I won’t be joining this grammar battle.

    I like language and I love words – because they change and the way it happens is fun to watch.

    Jonathan

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, fun with words, including those we are not supposed to use in “polite society.”
    And this got me to thinking about Mark Twain who never exactly said, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
    Checking this quote out, I came across the following which is a real hoot!

    “Several years ago, “when the country was new,” Hon. Nyrum Reynolds, of Wyoming Co., enjoyed quite a reputation as a successful pettifogger. He wasn’t very well posted up either in “book larnin’” or the learning of the law; but relied principally upon his own native tact and shrewdness–his stock of which has not failed him to this day. His great success created quite an active demand for his services.

    “On one occasion he was pitted against a “smart appearing” well-dressed limb of the law from a neighboring village, who made considerable sport of a paper which Reynolds had submitted to the Court, remarking among other things, that “all the law papers were required to be written in the English language, and that the one under consideration, from its bad spelling and penmanship, ought in fairness therefore to be excluded.”

    “Gen’l’men of the Jury,” said Reynolds, when he “summed up”—and every word weighed a pound—”the learned counsel on the other side finds fault with my ritin’ and spellin’ as though the merits of this case depended upon sich matters! I’m again lugging in any sich outside affairs, but I will say, that a man must be a d—d fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.” The Jury sympathized with Judge R. and rendered a decision in favor of his client.—[Olean Journal.

    Or as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

  5. Hank says:

    Speaking of A Way With Words, the program recently featured an item on not ending a sentence with a preposition. That reminded me of a story that my high school English grammar teacher used to bring home the point. The last sentence of this story (below) ends with 5 prepositions.
    ———-
    A mother was in the habit of going upstairs each evening with a book from which she would her young son a bedtime story. On one particular evening, she brought up a book which was not the book the son was expecting. So he said to her as she entered the room: “What did you bring that book to read me to out of up for?”

  6. tootightmike says:

    My favorite North Country-ism is the dropping of the ‘T’ in the middle of a word…Our radio station is headquartered in the town of Can’un. My neighbor stands on her porch in the morning and calls (literally screams), “Ki’un…Ki’un”. It’s hilarious at high volume.
    I wonder sometimes, if our local dialect is derived from the very early French settlers who were then supplanted by Scotsmen who couldn’t pronounce a French word if their lives depended on it.
    It’s a bit contagious though…when I visit family in Ohio, they all notice that we have adopted a different accent over time, which they interpret as Canadian.

  7. jeff says:

    Can’t say how many times I’ve heard the word Troops used improperly over the past 10 years and my second thought is it probably has something to do with the infighting between Army, Navy, Air Force and sub groups such as Marines. To say 5 troops were injured insults my intelligence… or is it my preference or the ingrained book larnin.

  8. Kirby Selkirk says:

    Wow! I agree with Jeff!
    Sloppy language leads to miscommunication and makes one look ignorant, uneducated and unitelligent.
    What gets me going the most is the misuse of me, myself and I.