Does Your Dictionary Rule?

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I was going to write about the proper use of hopefully and presently, two adverbs that were bugaboos for a few of my college professors.

But today’s visit to a dictionary has made me reconsider proper.

For decades, I carried high the language flag, circled these words in my own students’ essays, and went to bed at night satisfied that I had bequeathed a small but shiny gem of language education. (I never was that smug, but you get the idea.)

And while working as a newspaper copy editor, I patiently explained to new reporters that they meant “I hope” or “people hope” rather than “hopefully” in sentences such as:

Hopefully, fuel prices will drop.

I hoped each trainee would consider this knowledge more dazzling than a new press pass and hold it secure within his or her writer’s heart.

I had learned that we may use the adverb hopefully in this manner only:

Villagers stood on the beach and looked hopefully out to sea, spirits beginning to soar in the rising morning light as they sighted the small fishing boat previously feared lost forever in last night’s brutal storm.

Here, hopefully means “with hope.”

On another job, I cringed at the outgoing phone message of my boss, a smart, efficient, and orderly director at a publishing company, as her voice rang with confidence:

I am presently unavailable and will return your call as soon as possible.

“Currently unavailable!” I silently shouted. “You can return the calls presently, or soon! But you are currently unavailable!”

Uh-oh. Apparently, what I was taught, went on to teach, and held tucked away in the I-know-better-than-you back pocket of my editorial pants does not hold true, entirely.

Why do I say this? Because I checked that dictionary I mentioned earlier.

Hopefully can be used in exactly the manner just about everybody wants to use it:

Hopefully, your party will have a huge turnout and your guests will supply their own drinks!

Here, hopefully means “I hope.”

Likewise, it’s OK to tell your caller that you’ll call back presently or soon and also that you’re presently unavailable. The word means soon . . . and now.

Balking at what’s acceptable today is still acceptable. But you might want to balk lightly, limiting yourself to self-regulation rather than to the regulation of others until you check a now source.

And to a dictionary, together we shall presently turn, hopefully!

A good, contemporary dictionary functions as a fabulous guide and a trustworthy gospel. It will tell you about words and a lot more, like grammar. Your dictionary will empower you.

Some of us like to adhere to one guide, some to more. Sometimes we must stick with a dictionary selected by the person for whom we’re writing or editing.
The trick is to remember, if in doubt about a word’s usage, to opt to explore your dictionary. Then you can refer others to it while defending your position.

Usage notes may affirm your previous understanding or teach you something new. Today, though I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep using hopefully and presently as I was taught, I am re-humbled by the various and changing meanings and uses of words as I explore my chosen dictionary in order to offer you this presentment—the word that so happens to follow presently.

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19 thoughts on “Does Your Dictionary Rule?”

  1. I think the point here is that, while those two examples are/were correctly identified as ‘wrong’, language is constantly evolving and what is incorrect to one generation will be perfectly acceptable to another. Another example is the use of ‘alright’, which seems wrong to me – there’s no such word, and the correct form is ‘all right’ – but is becoming more and more prevalent on mainstream/news sites.

  2. Excellent article! Some experts believe text messaging is contributing to the erosion of proper use of language. I wonder how many young people consult a dictionary.

  3. I am an engineer and here my suggestion: Why don’t we have dictionaries with tolerance levels, like tolerance in mechanical or electrical engineering? Something like: this word in this meaning is acceptable in informal talk (tolerance level 5) and almost not acceptable in formal speech (tolerance level 2) and not acceptable at all in formal writing (tolerance level 1).

  4. I’m not sure I follow. I thought dictionaries were descriptive, not prescriptive.

    While I understand accepting changes in language, if you are going to change your opinion on those words because the dictionary cites them used in those new ways, shouldn’t you simply have trusted your first hand experience and changed your opinion because YOU heard them used so often in those new ways, by your students and your publishing boss?

    Along the same lines, the dictionary gives “unusual” as a definition for “unique.” Despite that, I maintain my crusade to have “unique” mean ONLY “one of a kind” without qualifications, like “pretty unique” or “very unique.” I feel this way mainly because we already have several perfectly good words for ‘unusual,” but we only have “unique” to unambiguously mean “one of a kind.” It’s unique!
    Well, we also have “singular,” so maybe it’s only pretty unique….


  5. Great post!

    My deskside dictionary at work is a Webster’s New World published in 1964. It doesn’t have an entry for “hopefully”–but it does have an entry for “presently,” which includes both “soon” and “now” as definitions. Your advice, to use a dictionary as a guide, is good. . .but will always be resisted by those who are convinced that dictionaries are too much swayed by popular opinion. Your other piece of advice, not to be too dictatorial on the subject of others’ usage, is even better. We all have our personal prejudices. . .and we all make errors others can gleefully denounce.

  6. Sorry, ApK! Your comment went up while I was still composing mine, which wasn’t in any way directed at yours. Agreed, that dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive–but they at least have editorial standards, so a good dictionary is a more reliable guide to changes in usage than is personal experience. Of course, then we get to quibble about which dictionaries are good. . .

  7. Michael: “Alright” raises hackles in American English, but has been widely used and accepted in British English for generations. Remember, this is an international site!

    ApK: Unfortunately, unique does not have an unambiguous meaning, otherwise you wouldn’t feel the need for a crusade.

    Ellen: A great article. I’ve never understood why some people get so worked up about using “hopefully” as an adverb, but not equivalent formations, such as starting a phrase with “happily” and “fortunately”.

  8. Thanks for a rich post that bespeaks of your high mastery of the language. I think language is a precious resource to be left at the mercy of lexicographers and language lovers should actively involve themselves in the preserving and cultivating of the language. Therefore, my answer to your question is: it does and it doesn’t.

  9. I like Pavel’s idea.

    Thorough dictionaries do provide usage notes, though not necessarily in as structured a manner as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

    I love having clear rules. I like to know when I’m breaking them and to break them by choice.

    I’m a feeling a bit free right now with my new understanding of “hopefully.” It’s so comfortable using it at the beginning of a sentence, being justified in doing so, and saying what I mean without contorting the rest of the words.

  10. I gave up the fight for “hopefully” when I realized that my colleagues teaching English all use it to mean “I hope.” And my dictionary tells me that “I feel badly” can indeed mean I am sorry or regretful and not just that my ability to feel is impaired.

    Hopefully I can stop feeling badly about my impulse to correct others when I hear these.

    Now, what will I do with all the time this frees up?

  11. Tim,

    I hope you’re enjoying all your newfound free time!


    I used:

    I hope this helps!

    –Ellen Feld

  12. My dictionary is constantly getting used. I keep a Merriam-Webster in my backpack at all times.

    Personally I can’t stand the way texting and instant messages are bastardizing the English language.

  13. It may be a mistake to assume that the dictionary is the authoritative source for proper word usage. The dictionary simply reports on common usage with little or no regard to correct usage.

    Here is a great example: “I will be with you momentarily.” The dictionary will tell you that this means “I will be with you soon.” Yet, the definition of the word “momentarily” is “for a short duration of time.” So, “I will be with you momentarily” means “I will be with you for a short duration of time.”

    Originally, if you were going to be with someone soon you said “I will be with you MOMENTLY.” Yes, the word is “momently.” Over the last 50 years or so the word “momently” has been degraded into the word “momentarily” by people who did not know any better. Likewise the dictionary has repeated the mistake of most people and reinforces it by this misuse of the word.

    There are thousands of other examples just like this one. If you believe that common usage represents correct usage then the dictionary can be your authority. If, on the other hand, you feel that common usage has diluted correct usage then you must look elsewhere to find authoritative comment on the language.

    For those of you looking for clear rules to word usage it seems those have become fewer and farther between. The standards are not as clear cut as once they were. Dictionaries provide conflicting information about words.

    Because our ability to communicate is dependent on the agreed upon meanings of the words we use it would seem we are communicating with less and less effectiveness. I’m afraid that most people don’t realize the danger inherent in the current situation. By the time people suddenly realize that everyone is communicating to different standards, that the words they use have idiosyncratic meanings, and that we are all speaking at crossed purposes, it will be very difficult to correct the problem. When it comes to the meanings of words it is vital that we all should “be on the same page,” so to speak.

    Hats off to Ellen Feld: this is one of the most thought-provoking articles I have read in a long time. The author has presented a topic that is long overdue for serious discussion and each of us would do well to examine what it is we mean when we use a particular word or phrase. Too often we assume that others know what we mean . . . and we all know what happens when we assume.

  14. Ivan, I’m not sure I understand?

    Adaptation and flexibility are essential to thriving in life and sometimes to thriving in grammar. You can uphold the rules as you know them, but I think it’s eye-opening to understand where others are getting their rules.

    I’m quick to find mistakes, point a finger, and say, “You’re wrong.” But I can be wrong in doing this if I haven’t explored. Different from what I’ve known to be right is not necessarily wrong.

    –Ellen Feld

  15. My dictionary (OED) has “hopefully” meanig “I/wehope” labelled at
    disp (disputed), It also has “presently” meaning “at the present time, now” as esp, US and Scottish.

    The dictionary gives enough detail of usage by marking words as colloquial, slang, coarse, obsolete etc I don’t think we need a system of numbered degrees of acceptibility of correctness.

  16. I love dictionaries. But at the same time they make me a little nervous. They scare me when they insist on allowing phrases to be admitted as words. And I have a little problem when words are defined depending on the current accepted usage. I always like looking up ‘rape’ which I think should be defined by its classical definition of ‘to take by force’ and not by its current one ‘to sexually assault’. Then I look up ‘bourgeois’ which is defined by its classical definition of ‘of the middle class’ while in current use it normally refers to something like “tastes defined by money rather than aesthetics’. Most dictionaries seem to want it both ways. Not fair.

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