Does Your Dictionary Rule?
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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