Posts Tagged ‘talk’

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

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