Hopefully the Grammar Nazis Won’t Know

Child in dunce hat sitting on a stool in a cornerSometime within the last week, I found an article (which I made a copy of) on one of the details of change in the English language. Where I found the article I don’t remember, but that doesn’t stop me from quoting it: “The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly — she continues to fight!”

This sarcastic stream of metaphor was inspired by the fact that the Associated Press stylebook has agreed that the word “hopefully” can be used as I used it in the title of this blog. You probably didn’t notice that the walls are coming down. Maybe you’ve even been working the catapult.

In my line of work (I’m using “work” as a metaphor there, you understand), or rather in my avocation, as a person who pays a lot of attention to language, I’ve long been aware of the distaste of some strict stylists for beginning a sentence with “hopefully”. It’s my unfortunate nature that the moment I know something is not allowed, then I really want to engage in that forbidden action, even to my own detriment. Hopefully, you’re not like that.

This dispute over a word brings a number of ideas to mind for me. A primary thought is that all language changes, constantly, unstoppably, and anyone who tries to stop it is a fool. Here, for instance, is a sentence in English from approximately the year 900: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.” Those are the first few lines of the poem Beowulf, and it really is English. It changed that much in the last 1100 years.

From generation to generation language changes. My grandmother said she knew the phrase “too far from head tall”, meaning from anywhere, but I’ve never said that. And I know my grandmother never used the word “google”. Even my own father pronounces the word “either” differently from how I say it. Does accepting that language changes mean, however, that there is no such thing as right and wrong, good or bad language? This question also heavily impacts discussions of dialects.

In fact, without an authority to declare what is right or wrong, all language is equally valid. The earliest authority was usually the source of political or cultural power, such as the court around the king. How often did the King of England speak bad English? Never, by definition. Whatever he did was right, and if you wanted to be right, that was it. Later, book authorities came to exist, particularly beginning with Samuel Johnson’s dictionary in 1755. We are now in the age of book authorities, as evidenced by the list of dictionaries in the first paragraph of this blog.

A third idea that this issue brings up for me is how we define “good” in reference to language. Does “good” mean strictly following a set of rules in a book? A letter from a lawyer does that. Is that good writing? Or what if we defined good language as being clear and easy to follow? (But that would mean most writing in English is bad.) Or good language might be language with an elegant, thoughtful, and interesting style. This sounds reasonable to me, but it also depends on who is reading and what they happen to think.

In spite of my apparent rebellion against all rules for how to write gooder, and even though it’s almost impossible to define, I also think some things in language are bad. This happens for me with punctuation, when people put apostrophe’s in the wrong places’, which make’s me crazy (and yes, I’ve seen a student put a goddamned apostrophe in a verb). And in grammar, though I don’t think I’m normally a dialect snob, I really do hate to hear a past participle used as a regular past tense: I seen him yesterday.

I’m also objecting to the objection to “hopefully” as I’ve used it above. It is reasonable to support standard grammar, as it helps us communicate, and style might be criticized because it is either unclear or awkward, but the objection to “hopefully” was based on arcane points that would mean little to most English speakers. It was like the rule against never ending a sentence with a preposition. The no-preposition rule is based on the fact that in Latin you can’t…blah blah blah, who cares? It’s stupid. Worse than stupid, it doesn’t even make sense.

So here’s my summary point in this blog entry. Things are good if I think they are. If you’re not sure about something, ask me. And it’s OK to say “Hopefully, you brought more beer, because we’re out.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Language

One response to “Hopefully the Grammar Nazis Won’t Know

  1. declansynott

    Hopefully, David. You’re no longer out of beer, the stuff hops and barley are made from.

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