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Let me talk about something that I feel like I’ve been circling around for some time, but never quite directly addressed. It’s a common thing in grammar grousers: playing up other people’s questionable usages as symptomatic of a larger disease while playing down one’s own as a clever subversion of stodgy English. Whereas the complainant’s usages are all justified by improving the language or enlivening the prose or just plain sounding right, the scorned writer’s usages are utterly unjustified — not because the complainant has considered possible justifications and found none of them sufficient, but rather because it is simply self-evident that an error is an error.*

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizbeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey. I find both of those to be worse than the targets of her ire — especially rapey, the jokey tone of which I find borderline offensive. Crucially, though, even as I reject her words, I can see why she likes them; it’s just that for me, their benefits don’t outweigh their downsides. Williams, on the other hand, seems to ignore any potential upsides to the usages she dislikes. When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

Similarly, I got into a short Twitter war with a follower who tweeted that she wanted to send copies of education majors’ grammatical errors to future employers. I pointed out that the follower (whose Twitter name is “Grammar Nazi”, about which the less said the better) had questionable usages in her bio:

“A soon to graduate English major whose biggest turn on is good grammar.”

In my grammar, there’re three missing hyphens, but she responded to me noting this with “I’m sure you’re aware compounding is a grey area. Rules may be generally agreed upon, but no official guidelines exist.” Such “generally agreed-upon” rules were probably settled enough for the tweeter to treat as errors had others broken them, but because she’s doing it, it’s okay. Her choice to go against the standards is justified, because she sees the justification. The education majors’, with their justifications left implicit, probably wouldn’t be.**

This forgiveness extends, of course, to include other people whose viewpoint the writer is sympathetic to. Kyle Wiens, who wrote that Harvard Business Review piece on his intolerance for grammar errors in his hiring practices, had a couple of questionable usages in the piece — nothing too bad, but things that would violate a true Zero Tolerance stance. Another blogger quoted some of the piece and added:

“Ignoring the one or two grammatical glitches within the quoted text (they may be the result of a message that was delivered orally, rather than in written form), the message [...] should be taken to heart. If you write poorly, you tell your reader: I haven’t changed. My education hasn’t made me better, it hasn’t touched my core. [...] I’m certainly not looking to have excellence be part of my personal brand – it’s too hard and too time consuming.”

The blogger seeks out an explanation for Wiens’s errors that diminishes the errors, but then chooses an explanation for everyone else’s that diminishes the writers.

We all do this to some extent. The most prominent example for me is when I come home from work and find a pile of dishes in the sink from my roommates. “C’mon guys, you can’t be bothered to do the dishes?” I wonder to myself and to anyone I talk to over the next few days. Yet I’ve just realized that I forgot to finish the dishes this morning before going to campus. Somehow I can’t muster the same indignation at myself as I have toward my roommates, because I had an excuse. (And I’ll tell you it as soon as I figure it out.)

Sure, it’s fair to give known-good writers more leeway than known-bad ones. But every error has a cause, and every usage a rationale. Don’t decide ahead of time that someone can’t be wrong or can’t be right.

*: This isn’t unique to grammar by any means; half of politics is explaining away your side’s missteps while playing up the other side’s.

*: By the way, you may wonder if I’m not doing exactly what I oppose here by complaining about a minor error that some people do not see as an error. On that, two points. One, hyphenating phrases that are used as adjectives (especially more-than-two-word phrases) is about as standard a rule of punctuation as one can find. Similarly with hyphenating a phrasal verb in its nominal form. Two, not that she needs to justify herself to me, but she doesn’t explain any reason why she’s breaking the rule, so as far as I can tell, she’s breaking the rule just to break it — hardly appropriate behavior for an otherwise hard-liner.

First off, if you haven’t already heard, the AP Stylebook finally dropped its objection to sentential hopefully (i.e., the “it is hoped” meaning), thanks in no small part to John McIntyre’s agitation. Another shibboleth bites the dust, hooray.

If you’re harboring any doubt about the wisdom of this move, cast it to sea. Living with sentential hopefully isn’t giving into modern ignorance; it’s giving in to traditional usage. Emily Brewster points out this 1999 article from Fred Shapiro in American Speech. Smack on its first page, we’re given a quote from Cotton Mather in 1702:

“Chronical Diseases, which evidently threaten his Life, might hopefully be relieved by his removal.”

In previous work, Shapiro traced it back to 1851, and here’s an example I found in Google Books from 1813. So it’s not some new and insidious usage, though this is often claimed.

And it’s not like sentential adverbs are inherently bad, either; witness well-regarded members of our lexicon such as frankly, happily, thankfully, or luckily, each of which can be used at the start of a sentence with nary an eyelash batting. The truth is that accepting sentential hopefully is not giving in to a tide of misusage but rectifying an objection that should never have been raised.

Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t see it that way. In a piece at Salon, she views the AP’s leniency on hopefully as capitulation. She thinks the AP’s giving in to the uneducated masses instead of remaining the guiding and educating light it ought to be. It’s another sign that no one knows about language anymore, and no one cares about it, not even its presumed defenders. She closes with this regret:

“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.”

Hey, you and me both. But here’s the thing: it’s not just everyone else who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Williams needs some work to get into her own dream world as well. While she lectures us who see nothing wrong with sentential hopefully about how we ought to have a better language arts education, she explains her disgust with it by exasperatedly pointing out:

“‘Hopefully’ is an adverb. An adverb, I tells ya [...]“

Ok, cool, but I’m with the red-headed guy here:

She’s really stressing the hopefully-is-an-adverb point, which is fine, but no one’s saying it’s not. The sentential usage is an adverbial usage. If you think that people think that hopefully can be used in a non-adverbial context, then you’re not in a position to be disparaging anyone’s knowledge of English.

So it’s strange that Williams is complaining about people who don’t know enough about English causing the acceptance of sentential hopefully, since the people opposing sentential hopefully apparently don’t know English either. A person who really knew about the history of usage in English would know that sentential hopefully is a member of a large and grammatical class of sentential adverbs, that it’s been around for centuries, that, in short, there’s nothing wrong with it. It engenders some distaste from the uninformed and it’s perhaps a bit informal, but there’s no reason why it should be so despised. Many of the people who condemn the rabble for not knowing the rules or history of English don’t know them themselves.

Let me cast the mote out of my own eye first: I don’t either. I was gobsmacked by the Brewster/Shapiro/Mather finding; in an earlier post talking about sentential hopefully, I only had it going back to 1932. There is a lot that any one person won’t know about a language. But one key difference between people who claim to care about how language works and those who actually do is that the latter category will investigate a usage before accusing it of being bad grammar.

So yes, it’s a shame that so many people don’t care about language. But the problem isn’t that alone; it’s also that too many who do care about language care about it wrong. They’re not interested in the actual data; they’re interested in what they decided the language ought to be. They argue their points in a world apart from actual usage, based on the logic that they presume underlies language. When they do cite usage, it’s with a heavy confirmation bias. And their complaints are run through with this strange — and to me, infuriating — willingness to grant themselves pardons from their otherwise zero-tolerance policy. Williams groans at people who use nauseous for “nauseated” (standard since the 19th century, BTW) or who write gonna, but then gladly admits that she uses stabby and rapey*.

This isn’t caring about language; it’s caring about feeling superior.


*: Which, by the way, seriously?

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, a graduate student/doctoral candidate in Linguistics at UC San Diego. I have a Bachelor's in math from Princeton and a Master's in linguistics from UCSD.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible.

I focus on learning problems that have traditionally been viewed as difficult, such as combining multiple information sources or learning without negative data or ungrammatical examples. My dissertation models how children can use multiple cues to segment words from child-directed speech, and how phonological constraints can be inferred based on what children do and don't hear adults say.



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