Monday, July 03, 2006

Hopefully, This Will Satisfy the Purists

Being somewhat of a linguistic snob, I take notice when I am accused of puncturing the Queen’s English. So I was somewhat taken aback when I was privately chided for my use of the word “hopefully” in a recent article. I have chosen to come to my own defense.

In the purist sense, “hopefully” means “in a hopeful manner”. It is not to be used casually as a replacement for “I hope” or even the more passive and stuffy “it is hoped that”.

For example, it may be okay to say. “She gazed down the street hopefully, wondering if her lover would ever return.” But it’s not proper to say, “Hopefully, the math teacher will be sick and we won’t have to take that algebra test tomorrow.”

Well, that may be true. But I think that ignores the fact that occasionally we need small pauses in casual writing to allow the reader to grasp the true meaning of what’s being said. Actually, I just demonstrated it. And I just did it again.

Most people read faster than they should. When that happens, the words tend to overflow their comprehension buffer. Words mindlessly enter their consciousness without being adequately considered, studied, pondered, and comprehended.

When writing in a casual style, sometimes the author needs to plant little devices into the text to slow things down. Kinda like linguistic speed bumps. They aren’t exactly “noise” words because they actually provide some extra meaning to the sentence. But they require a little extra mental processing, which in turn slows the mind down. If these little gems weren’t sprinkled through the text, the reader would be, in effect, “over-driving his headlights”, venturing into uncharted territory without proper guidance.

For some reason, adverbs fit that bill very well. An occasional “actually”, “really”, and yes, even “hopefully” can be used in that fashion. Not only do they provide a little emphasis or clarification to the subject, but they provide a brief pause in the action — a time for the reader to reflect on what has just been said and to anticipate what is to come.

Of course, any device like that can be overused — especially in casual conversation. I once worked with a guy who began every sentence with “basically”. It didn’t provide any meaning or clarification. It didn’t enhance or give any credibility to what he was about to say. It was just a bad habit. A dreadful habit, actually.

In one meeting, several of us threatened to throw a stapler at him the next time he began a sentence with the word “basically”. He looked at us — quite terrified — and never said another word the entire meeting.

Actually, it was a very pleasant silence. Hopefully, he learned his lesson. Really, he had it coming.

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