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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson

I’ve got to get something off my chest, and that is my dismay at the growing misuse of the word, “hopefully.”

This isn’t a big issue, I’ll grant you. It has nowhere near the importance of, say, the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, or the rapid growth in wage disparities in the U.S., or the fear that our world is approaching an environmental Armageddon such as we’ve never seen. And there are other, far more critical abuses of language appearing daily in our conversations, both printed and spoken.

But, small as it may seem, it is an example of an increasing inability among English speakers to say what we mean, which too easily translates into an inability to mean what we say.

And it pisses me off.

Okay, it’s just another pet peeve in the addled mind of a man too easily pissed off at, well, many things.

But the fact remains that this particular ill usage of English is on the rise. I hear it or read it more and more, these days, and all too often coming from the mouths of people who should know better.

The word itself, for those who don’t know, is an adverb, meaning it is mean to modify a verb, and adjective or another adverb. The Grammar Girl website states that the word dates back at least to the 1600s.

A little bit of research shows that, until recently, it was used to describe a sense of hope on the part of someone, such as in the phrase, “John stared hopefully at the plate of macadamia nuts on the table.” The meaning here is clear.

Or take the phrase, “President Obama plans hopefully to capitalize on world opinion that the U.S. has regained its sanity.” Again, clear. In both cases, the subject, either Tom or Obama, is hoping for an outcome.

But starting some time in the last century, according to Grammar Girl, it somehow found itself at the beginning of sentences, which is syntactically confusing.

For example, “Hopefully, I’ll get to eat some of those nuts,” a sentence that obviously indicates I want some nuts, and the word, “hopefully,” apparently is meant as a substitute for the phrase, “I hope.”

So why not just say it? What is there that is wrong with the use of the phrase, “I hope?” Is it that we’re afraid of giving ourselves away as too clinging, too effeminate, too demanding? Are we afraid someone will call us on the carpet for having the effrontery to hope for something? Is it a deeper desire to avoid any reference to our private selves in public conversation? Do we wish we weren’t even here, much less engaging in fruitless fantasies of gratification?

Let’s revisit Obama’s hope that he can make use of international good will as he tackles the vast and full plate of challenges faced by his administration: “Hopefully, Obama can capitalize on world opinion that the U.S. has regained its sanity.”

Put aside any questions about the meaning of national sanity, or about whether we as a nation ever really possessed it. As a sentence, does the first word refer to Obama’s eagerness, or our own hope that he can get something done?

See what I mean? It’s murky, just confusing enough to prompt a question mark to form above the head of a reader, to derail consideration of whether Obama can do what he hopes, or whether the world actually feels that way, or whether Obama is off his rocker in thinking the world actually has a better opinion of us than it once had.

I know, there are much more critical issues to be aired and fought over, and I’ll be accused by some of wasting ink and space on such a triviality. But, hey, I’m a hopeful guy, surprising as that may seem to some.

I do hope Obama will be able to make international hay out of the good will resulting from the 2008 election.

And I do hope that, the next time a box of nuts appears on the common table at our office, I manage to gobble at least one.

And I hopefully await the day when this damned misuse of a silly little word goes away.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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