A 50-year tug of war over ‘hopefully’ ends with a shrug

“Hopefully” entered the realm of acceptability last week, receiving the blessing of The Associated Press Stylebook.

The stylebook’s editors announced at the national convention of the American Copy Editors Society that they were changing their entry on “hopefully.” They sent out an email announcement today.

Here’s the new entry:

The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.

Correct: “You’re leaving soon?” she asked hopefully.

Correct: Hopefully, we’ll be home before dark.

Some people will no doubt wince. Most will probably frown and say, “Well, yeah. Of course. That’s the way I’ve always used it.”

A little history offers some perspective.

A product of the ’60s

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says use of hopefully to mean we hope or it is hoped was rare until the early 1960s, with use accelerating from 1964 on. Criticism of its misuse accelerated just as steadily.

Among the critics was Theodore Bernstein, assistant managing editor of The New York Times. In The Careful Writer (1965), he said hopefully was commonly misused. By 1971, though, even Bernstein had begun to soften his stance. In Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, he wrote prophetically:

The word is in common use and perhaps in reputable use and one wonders whether attempts to resist it are not exercises in futility.

A few years later, in Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage, Bernstein compared hopefully to words like fortunately, luckily, regrettably and happily, saying:

To be quite honest, a decade ago I was on the side of the objectors, but in recent years additional thought about the matter has changed my mind.

Others weren’t swayed. The 1976 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage called on reporters and editors to restrict use of hopefully to “in a hopeful manner.”

In Words on Words (1980), John Bremner called hopefully “a knee-jerk word like yunno.” Four years later, the Harbrace College Handbook (10th edition) called use of hopefully “still questionable for I hope or it is hoped.” By 1994 (12th edition), the entry for hopefully had disappeared.

A softening of resistance

The 1999 edition of the Times stylebook softened its stance on hopefully, though it said use of hopefully to mean it is hoped would very likely “irritate readers.”

The AP maintained its restriction, though it was late to the hopefully game.

Its 1970 stylebook, a 52-page staple-bound paperback, contained little advice about usage. Rather, it had short entries on capitalization, abbreviations, punctuation, spelling, sports and a few other things. It had no entry on hopefully.

By the late ’70s, the stylebook had grown to 276 pages and had expanded its repertoire to usage. That’s when it started advising journalists to avoid use of hopefully to mean we hope or it is hoped. That admonition has remained until now.

Objections to hopefully won’t go away, of course, but a 50-year tug of war seems all but over.

I have no strong feelings about AP’s change, though I can’t remember the time I’ve used hopefully, except to talk about it in class. I’ll accept the change and move on.

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