Hopefully Caring Less About Shibboleths

By Maeve Maddox

In a recent email reader Phil Dragonetti raises the specter of “could/couldn’t care less.

Why do some say “I could care less”;—when they really mean “I couldn’t care less.”?

We’ve already dealt with that shibboleth at DWT. I still have the bruises to show for voicing the opinion that as far as I’m concerned, either is acceptable to convey the idea that one cares very little about a matter.

The argument that the “couldn’t care less” form is more logical moves me not at all. Since when is it a requirement of an English idiom that it be logical?

Today’s shibboleth is the word hopefully used with the meaning “it is to be hoped that.”

Some examples:

His parting remark was, “Hopefully, they will get it right next time.”

Hopefully they’re working on a Mac port.

Hopefully, they will end college the way they started it – together.

Hopefully we’ve won some fans over today, (This from a British source)

Hopefully we are not headed for disaster in Cairo.

This use of hopefully is disdained by many. For example this entry at Englishplus.com:

Hopefully is an adverb which means what it ought to [italics mine]–“full of hope” or “characterized by hope.” It normally modifies verbs.

Nonstandard English sometimes substitutes the word hopefully for I hope (or some other subject with the verb hope).

Correct: They listened hopefully for the sound of the rescue party. 
(They listened with hope)
Incorrect: Hopefully, they will come in time.
Correct: I hope they will come in time.

On the other hand, here’s the note at Merriam-Webster:

it is hoped : I hope : we hope
usage In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.

I often wonder what it is about some words or expressions that causes people to harbor such strong feelings against them. This comment by a guest of Charlie Rose is what prompted me to write about hopefully:

[We should] tax all people 90% for misusing “hopefully.”

Animosity towards hurtful ethnic or gender slurs are one thing. But hopefully? (Excuse me while I put on my catcher’s mask. I know I’m about to be pelted.)

Michael Quinion has an excellent discussion of hopefully at World Wide Words
.
You may also find the note at Answers.com of interest.

Although I don’t find hopefully particularly objectionable as a sentence adverb, I have to acknowledge that audience is everything. College students, for example, would do well to avoid the taboo usage in a written assignment. And I have to admit that I have friends and relatives around whom I would hesitate to use it.

Sometimes knowing you’re right doesn’t matter. I recall a college English professor who told how he learned the importance of adapting to one’s audience when he was home helping with the harvest and foolishly asked his fellow workers:

To whom does this pitchfork belong?”

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7 Responses to “Hopefully Caring Less About Shibboleths”

  • Brad K.

    Maeve, “To whom does this pitchfork belong?” is obviously the wrong question.

    If you have a pitchfork in hand, the correct question is “How much hay should I throw down (from the hay barn)?” Duh!

    I think the defining moment on standards of usage was in Junion High. Mrs. Anderson, our math teacher, marked an answer incorrect because it included the word “ain’t”. “Ain’t isn’t a word.” When someone (it might have been me, I was always a . . . challenge) responded that it was listed in our class dictionary, Mrs. Anderson told us that is wasn’t an acceptable word, even so.

    That morning in math class stands out for me. Common usage, even when included in a reference like a dictionary, might not be “proper.” This meant that I was responsible for the appropriate use of language. Simply picking and choosing a reference wasn’t enough.

    And yet I still find myself making up words and imputing nonstandard usage and meanings.

  • Chris

    Bryan Garner calls this word “skunked,” because grammarphiles demand a correctness that most audiences won’t understand. Fair enough. But I’d also note that he has, apparently, conceded the fight. In a daily usage tip last year, the increasingly archaic meaning was dropped. I think only the most persnickety Mrs. Anderson would object to the usage adopted by 99% of the English-speaking world. The resisters don’t have their finger in a dyke, they have it in a river.

  • PreciseEdit

    Fun question, Maeve. This is one of the topics we address in our Writing Tips for a Year service. Here is our quick-and-dirty discussion on “hopefully” and “hopeful.”

    “Hopefully” describes actions; “Hopeful” describes people.

    “Hopefully” is an adverb, which means that it can describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. Consider this sentence.

    “Hopefully, Bob ran to the store.”

    In this sentence, “hopefully” describes “ran.” Bob’s running is characterized by hope. This is similar to writing “Quickly, Bob ran to the store.” In this sentence, “hopefully” is used correctly.

    However, “hopefully” is frequently misused to describe a person’s attitude about a future event. Consider this sentence.

    “Hopefully, the store will be open.”

    This is wrong. In this sentence, we are not trying to describe the manner in which the store is open. Instead, we are trying to describe how we feel about the store being open. In short, we are hopeful. Because we are describing ourselves, we need to use the adjective “hopeful,” not the adverb “hopefully.” Here are two ways to write this correctly:

    “We are hopeful that the store will be open.”
    “We hope that the store will be open.”

    The first correction uses the adjective “hopeful” to describe “we.” I prefer the second sentence, which uses the action verb “hope” instead of the weak verb “are” plus the adjective “hope.”

  • Cassie Tuttle

    While I recognize the common and incorrect usage of “hopefully” (to mean, it is hoped that), and my ears still perk up painfully when I hear it used incorrectly, I have to admit that this is one battle I’ve just about given up.

    I think it is too deeply entrenched in the language now, though hopefully, there will always be some of us who know the difference. Sigh ….

  • Robert

    “…either is acceptable to convey the idea that one cares very little about a matter.”

    Neither term is ‘more logical’; they mean the opposite of each other, just as they are expressed, nor do they necessarily mean ‘one cares very little’.

    I care (x amount); I couldn’t care less than I do if I wanted to. I’m incapable of it.

    I care (x amount), but I could care less than I do.

    Either one is lazy usage when the speaker/writer really means ‘I don’t give a sh*t.’

    I suppose griping about it amounts to airing out a pet peeve, but we have to have something to do with our time, eh?

  • Alice

    Have you looked up the meaning of shibboleth lately?

  • Maeve

    Well, it’s official. According to the editors of the AP Stylebook, anyway. The disjunctive use of “hopefully” is acceptable standard English. Here’s my take on it:
    http://americanenglishdoctor.com/wordpress/worse-errors-than-hopefully

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