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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Hopefully, you enjoy listening to FRESH AIR. And if you're about to criticize me for using that word "hopefully," think again. The Associated Press is no longer condemning the use of the adverb "hopefully" in their style guide. The announcement was a warning to those who have made the adverb the biggest bugaboo of English usage over the last 50 years. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks it's the end of an era and that's a good thing.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: There was something anticlimactic to the news that the AP Style Guide will no longer be objecting to the use of "hopefully" as a floating sentence adverb, as in "Hopefully, the Giants will win the division." But these usage fixations have a tenacious hold. William Safire once described the hopefully rule as the litmus test that separated the language snobs from the language slobs. And the rule still has plenty of fans, to judge from the 700 or so comments on The Washington Post's story about the AP's decision.

That floating "hopefully" had been around for more than 30 years when a clutch of usage critics like Theodore Bernstein and E. B. White came down on it hard in the 1960s. Writers who had been using it up to then said their mea culpas and pledged to forswear it. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications.

The poet Phyllis McGinley called it an abomination and said its adherents should be lynched. And the historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it the most horrible usage of our times. That was a singular distinction in an age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."

But you wouldn't want to take that usage hysteria at face value. A usage can be really, really irritating, but that's as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused "hopefully" or "literally" makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that. What it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen.

It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms. Of course, even if you find the tone of those complaints histrionic, you can still sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing "enormity" with "enormousness" or "disinterested" with "uninterested." It doesn't herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.

But the fixation with "hopefully" is different from those others. For one thing, the word itself is so utterly inconsequential - is that the best you've got? More to the point, there's no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it's a free-floating modifier that isn't attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker's attitude.

But floating modifiers are mother's milk to English grammar. Nobody objects to using sadly, mercifully, thankfully or frankly in exactly the same way. Or people complain that "hopefully" doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping. But neither does "it is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that a lot of critics propose as a substitute. That's what these usage fetishes can drive you to; you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can't hear what it's really saying. The fact is that "I hope that" doesn't mean the same thing that "hopefully" does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction.

I'm comfortable saying "I hope I survive to 105." I mean, it isn't likely, but who knows. But it would be pushing my luck to say "Hopefully, I'll survive to 105," since that suggests it might actually be in the cards. So why would critics decide to turn this useful little adverb into the era's biggest bugaboo?

Well, the very unreasonableness of the objections helps make the rule an efficient badge of belonging. You could never guess the rule. Somebody who came to "hopefully" armed only with a keen ear for English grammar and style would have no way of knowing that anybody had a problem with it. You can only know about it if you're the sort of person who actually reads usage guides or who has tea with others who do. It's not enough just to be literate; you have to have pretensions to being one of the literati.

That helps to explain the curious persistence of the fetish. Since 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary has been sending surveys about usage questions to a panel of well-known writers and editors. For some years I worked with them preparing those surveys. Over time, the panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated" or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." When they started sending out the surveys, only about half the panelists objected to it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent.

The prejudice against "hopefully" will no doubt survive for a while among the scribbling classes zombie-style. But it's the last of its breed. People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity.

Safire was the last guru who was invested with that kind of authority. But he wound up accepting the stigmatized use of "hopefully" early on. So should all the rest of us. We'll encounter some grousing from the defiant one-percenters. But hopefully, my dear, we won't give a damn.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

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