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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?


A while ago, I was scanning through recent entries on a stolidly prescriptivist grammar blog. It’s a blog that I occasionally mine for grammar myths to debunk, and while there I noticed that they had switched off comments on all the posts.

If I may get on a soap-box for a paragraph, I can’t stand when an ostensibly informative blog doesn’t have comments. There’s no reason to think that a given blogger knows anything about the subject they’ve chosen to blog about. Leaving on comments is a sort of check-and-balance system, where readers can point out flaws in an argument, introduce new information, and debate controversial points. Sure, commenters at large blogs and news sites are often rambling imbeciles promoting porn sites or superficial political philosophies (see, among others, CNN’s commenters), but at small blogs — exactly where you need something to prove that the blogger knows what they’re talking about — commenters are usually informative, helpful, and insightful members of a small community (see, among others, this blog’s commenters). I just don’t trust bloggers who close comments, because they aren’t interested in learning the facts. They want you to hear what they have to say and accept it unquestioningly. That’s just not the way I think blogs should work, so I get a little cheesed when people turn off comments.

Anyway, back to that blog. It kept on parroting obvious prescriptivist canards that I couldn’t correct because I couldn’t comment. I’m an academic, so someone being wrong about something I know about really sticks in my craw. Luckily, there was one post — the “pet peeves” post — that still allowed comments, where I hoped I could explain the error of their prescriptivist ways. However, the comments for that post were moderated to exclude comments that, among other things, contain “overly negative language, or are not directly related to a pet peeve.” Drat!

I needed a back door, and conveniently someone had left a comment complaining about sentence-modifying hopefully:

Hopefully… It is an adverb, not a verb. It is not a substitute for ‘I hope’. It means ‘in a hopeful manner’ or ‘full of hope’.”

Exactly the sort of prescriptivism I’d like to correct. Hopefully doesn’t get used as a verb. No one thinks it does, except for the author of this awful post, who made the absurd claim that hopefully is “most commonly used” as a verb. Figuring that the commenter was just repeating the complaint from that post, I set the plan in motion by replying innocently:

“Who thinks ‘hopefully’ is a verb? I have never seen anyone use it as such.”

And the original commenter justified the claim with a reference to that post, just as I’d hoped.

I replied again, pointing out that the referenced post was nonsensical and linking to the post here explaining why there is nothing wrong with the sentential usage of hopefully. Sadly, the comment never got through! But in getting it rejected, I got the best thing I could have hoped for, the whole reason I was trolling in the first place. Check out this comment from the owner of the blog:

“The pet peeves page is intended to be a list of pet peeves–a list of things that annoy people–not a discussion about whether we agree, disagree, whether they’re valid, not valid, etc.”

What a marvelous statement of the prescriptivist position, right? It doesn’t matter if your gripe’s valid or if it makes any sense; what matters is that you’ve decided to be annoyed by something, and you want other people to change because of it. This is insane. It’s so insane, in fact, that I can’t even think of an analogy for it. But that’s the way prescriptivism works: you choose what’s going to make you angry, and everyone else is expected to play along.

I posted one last comment, which I am certain adhered to the restrictions. It didn’t get through the moderation, so let me go ahead and say it here: The thing that annoys me is when someone hangs on to an obviously incorrect and easily disproven belief about language, and forces it upon others. You could call it my pet peeve.

Apparently sentential adverbs are a secret. An open secret, of course, which explains why almost everyone knows about them and uses them regularly. Everyone, of course, except prescriptivists. I already talked about this regarding prescriptivists’ insistence that hopefully can’t be used as a sentential adverb, but now I’ve come across it again in the belief that most importantly can’t be used as a sentential adverb, as in (1a), and that instead most important should be employed (1b):

(1a) Most importantly, you want to intrigue students […]
(1b) Most important, you want to intrigue students.

When I read that, I thought they were putting me on. (1b) sounds awfully awkward to me. If were editing someone and they came to me with this sentence, I would immediately suggest that most importantly was surely what they meant. If they insisted on using the adjectival form, I’d want something stronger than a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence; I think I’d want to use a colon.

So why do people disagree with my exquisite punctuative tastes? What’s their argument for the adjective? It’s an intriguing one: the sentential modifying most important is said to derive from what is most important, as in sentence (2):

(2) “His color is very good, and what is most important, he is himself, just as much himself in color as he was in pen and ink.

The claim is that the modern form most important is an elided version of the longer what is most important. Now, that strikes me as something of a just-so story; if that sort of elision is standard with what’s more important, why don’t we also see it attested with other similar constructions, such as what’s most interesting or what’s more notable? One possibility is that what’s more important is more frequent than the other constructions; evidence for this hypothesis comes from the Google n-gram corpus, in which there are far more examples of what is more important than any other single what is more X:

what is more important: 31740
what is more interesting: 5795
what is more likely: 4566
what is more difficult: 2413
what is more surprising: 2189
(and so on)

And some of these other adjectives do behave like important:

(3) Even more surprising, he has put his scholarly findings in “popular” form […]

So maybe the elision story isn’t a just-so story after all. And even if it is, sentential most important is well-attested in the Oxford English Dictionary and on the Internet:

(4a) What were these quasi-stellar objects and, perhaps even more important, how were they giving off so much energy? [OED, 1964]
(4b) Most important, he never wavered from his driving principles […]

And as such, I am willing to accept most important as standard for people who are not me. But what of most importantly? Well, the secret of sentential adverbs is simply that there’s nothing wrong with them either. Certainly you’d sound quite mad if you said what’s most importantly, but that’s fine, because that’s not where most importantly comes from. Most importantly is just a sentence-modifying adverbial phrase like any other:

(5a) Most importantly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign […]
(5b) Clearly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5c) Oddly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5d) Luckily, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5e) Frankly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign

(The last two sentential adverbs have been attested in the OED since 1717 and 1847, respectively.) In none of (5b-e) could the adverb be converted to an adjective.

More importantly probably arose independently of what’s more important, either as a regularization of the sentential adjective more important to sentential adverb, or through some separate lineage. And I say “regularization” here only because sentence-modifying adjectives like most important (and most surprising) are outliers; most sentential-modifying phrases are adverbial.

Lastly, I’m told by the MWDEU that the bare adjective important cannot be used as a sentential modifier, even though more important can. That strikes me as very strange; after all, what is important is no less valid than what is more important, right? Instead, importantly must be used in that situation.

So prescriptivists holding the “most important, not most importantly” view are asserting that importantly is only valid if it is unmodified, while important is only valid if it is modified. That seems to me an odd stance to take, especially compared to the simpler explanation that importantly is valid whether or not it’s modified.

Summary: more important and more importantly are both valid sentence-modifying phrases, although I personally would only use the latter. Importantly is also a valid sentential modifier, although oddly important is not.

Every time National Grammar Day comes around, I’m struck with a spot of dread. Any of my friends or acquaintances might, at any moment, spring upon me and shout “Hey! It’s totally your day! So don’t you hate when people use the passive voice, since you’re all into grammar?” And then I will be forced, as the crabby old coot I am, to meet their well-meaning inquiry with the level of vitriol normally reserved for a hairdresser who’s decided to treat your head as a testing ground for a new theory of hair design. “No,” I’ll shout, “that’s not it at all! I love the passive, I love variation! Grammar isn’t about telling people what they can’t say; it’s about finding out what people do say, and why they say it!” And through that outburst, my Facebook friend count will be reduced by one.

My problem with National Grammar Day (and most popular grammarians in general) is that it suggests that the best part of studying language is the heady rush of telling people that they shouldn’t say something. But if you really study language, you know that there’s so much more to it than that. Each time March 4th comes and goes, we’re missing an opportunity to show people how wonderful the field of linguistics is. So if you’ll permit me to steal a moment, let me show you the two papers that really made me fall in love with the field.

The first is from Murray, Frazer, and Simon: “Need + Past Participle in American English“, which is the first in a series of three papers on the Midwestern/Appalachian construction needs done (e.g., this article needs re-written, my cat needs washed). This paper made me realize how deep the rabbit-hole of colloquial and dialectal speech goes. (Sadly, you need a subscription to JSTOR to read it.)

The second paper is the one that launched me into the exciting world of alternation studies, Bresnan & Nikitina’s “On the Gradience of the Dative Alternation“. (This paper has since been superseded by revised versions, but I think this draft is still the best version for an alternations newbie.) If you ever have the chance, take a look at these papers. Maybe they won’t do anything for you, but then again, maybe they will, and maybe you’ll understand why I think so many celebrants of National Grammar Day are missing the point.

On to the meat of the post. As you might remember from last year, my favorite way to celebrate National Grammar Day is by debunking popular grammar myths. Here’re 10 facts about the English language that run counter to the rubbish that pedants prescribe. The first eight are from the last year of posts here at Motivated Grammar. The last two are from other sites. Explanations and justifications for the statements below are found by following the links, so if you disagree, please don’t grouse to me that I must be wrong until after you’ve read the reasons why you are.

Singular they is standard English. What’s wrong with the sentence Everyone celebrates today in their own way? Historical usage, contemporary usage, the usage of revered writers, acceptance by language authorities, analogous constructions, and issues of ambiguity all agree: absolutely nothing.

Slow is an adverb. It has been used as such for years, for centuries even. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals. You may resume drinking Dr Pepper if you so choose.

People are using hopefully correctly. Hopefully has two distinct usages, one a regular adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and the other a sentence-modifying adverb meaning approximately “I hope” or “With any luck”. The latter usage has been unreasonably derided, because it is a sentential adverb and it is a new meaning for an old word. But neither of those complaints is valid, especially since…

The meanings of words can and do change over time. Hopefully isn’t the only word with a new-meaning stigma; prescriptivists often vilify words that have sprouted new meanings. But this is a very standard part of the English language. In fact, not only hopefully, but also of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.

You can eat healthy food. This meaning was fine for 300 years, and then Alfred Ayers came along and declared it wrong. Of course, it was he who was wrong, but his edict has stuck around at the edges of prescriptivism ever since.

I’m good is good. Every once in a while, someone gives me guff about my careful avoidance of the phrase I’m well when I am asked how I am. There’s nothing wrong with I’m well, but it isn’t what I mean to say. There is also nothing wrong with I’m good, and it is what I mean to say.

Between and among differ not in number, but in vagueness. The rule that between can only be used with two items, and among with more than two, is specious. The real tendency of English favors between when the connections are conceptualized as being specifically between individuals, and among when the connections are more vague and collective.

An invite is informal, but hardly wrong. It’s a minor point, of course, but the noun has been around for 500 years. I mention this post mostly because there was a great discussion in the comments about the psychology of prescription.

And from others:

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style isn’t a good grammar reference book. From Geoff Pullum. While Strunk & White are able dispensers of style advice, they drop the ball in their grammatical advice, and unfortunately, that’s what people use them for. Pullum explains why the 50th anniversary of the book should have been met not with celebrations, but with shaking heads.

Choosing between which and that is more interesting than you’d think. It’s nearing five years old now, but Arnold Zwicky posted about his understanding of different contexts in which which and that can be used as relativizers in a relative clause. It’s much more interesting and rewarding than just saying that which is to be limited to non-restrictive clauses. It’s also much more accurate.

Want more debunked myths? 10 more are available on last year’s post! See why 10 items or less, different than, and alright are all right. Want still more, preferably in fewer-than-140-character chunks? Follow Motivated Grammar on Twitter.

[Update 03/04/2011: For National Grammar Day 2011, I’ve listed another 10 grammar myths, addressing topics such as Ebonics, gender-neutral language, and center around.]

[Update 03/04/2012: And again for 2012. Ten more myths, looking at matters such as each other, anyways, and I’m good.]

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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, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

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. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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