Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Adventures with adverbs (2nd of 3): hopefully

It’s been a while since I posted part 1 of the Adventures with Adverbs series. Real life kept intervening. Besides, I kept on not going to the library to check out Edwin Newman’s A Civil Tongue (1976).

I was just a youthful amoeba, barely out of my teens, when Newman’s Strictly Speaking (1974) was published. My parents got it for me, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was a full-fledged recruit into the language police. And then I read  its sequel, A Civil Tongue.

As many of you know, one of Newman’s big complaints was the usage of hopefully to mean “I hope” or “one might hope” or “it is to be hoped” or the like. It means, claimed Newman, “in a hopeful manner,” and that’s all it means; i.e., “in a manner characterized by hope.” Newman drove the point home in the footnote on page 41 of A Civil Tongue:
Hopefully has its academic supporters, who say that it is the equivalent of the German hoffentlich. However, Nicholas Christy, a professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, wrote to me that hoffentlich means it is to be hoped. The German for hopefully, he wrote, is hoffnungsvoll.
Before we go any further, let’s make up and define some notation:
hopefully(1) = in a hopeful manner,
hopefully(2) = it is to be hoped,
with the understanding that not everybody accepts hopefully(2). And of course we still have the unmarked hopefully.

I’m not as familiar with the scholarly literature on hopefully as I ought to be [rolling my eyes]. I hadn’t known that people had defended hopefully(2) by claiming that it means the same thing as hoffentlich (which it in fact does). The obvious question that arises is “So what? Who cares?” I guess the point is that there is an unchallenged word in some language--and one closely related to English at that--that means hopefully(2). Cool. And I guess Newman’s point is that one English word cannot carry the meanings of two nonsynonymous German words. And why not? I don’t know.

Let’s sort out the uses of hopefully in the quotation and delete the extraneous stuff (and add either some quotation marks or italics to improve its readability).

Hopefully(2) has its academic supporters, who say that it is the equivalent of the German hoffentlich. However, hoffentlich means it is to be hoped. The German for hopefully(1) is hoffnungsvoll.
There are a few problems here. First, this is convincing only if we assume, as Newman seems to, that one English word can’t mean both hoffnungsvoll and hoffentlich. No reason in the world to assume that, as far as I can tell. More importantly, this doesn’t prove that hopefully(2) is incorrect unless you already assume that hopefully(2) is incorrect. To paraphrase, “Some say that hopefully is equivalent to hoffentlich. But hoffentlich doesn’t mean hopefully; it means it is to be hoped.” In other words, the argument assumes that hopefully doesn’t mean it is to be hoped. But that’s what the argument is supposed to prove.

But that's not quite what I'm trying to say either, or maybe it is. What we really need here is video of me flapping my arms around. The point of these supporters of the hopefully(1) = hoffentlich hypothesis is, so I assume, that it's possible for a single word to mean it is to be hoped that. So Newman comes back with the argument that hoffentlich means it is to be hoped that. Which doesn't mean hopefully. Whatever.

Be all of this as it might, on reading this footnote I resigned from the language police.