By Jason Gillikin | April 21, 2012
Last week I received a most unhappy email: The Associated Press announced that it introduced a new update to its comprehensive, industry-standard style book. To wit:
The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope.
Correct: “You’re leaving soon?” she asked hopefully.
Correct: Hopefully, we’ll be home before dark.
I have too little free time to enmesh myself betwixt the warring factions of the linguistic wars. You know the drill: Descriptivists on one side, arguing that words mean whatever a preponderance of Facebook status updates says they mean, and prescriptivists on the other, vowing to protect the “correct” usage of words no matter how obscure the lexical entry or how widespread the alleged misuse.
In this case, though, I have to cry foul. As much as I favor the AP Stylebook — it’s my default when no other authority is specified — this new entry harms more than helps. It authorizes a deviation from a generally accepted syntactical standard; worse, there’s no clear burning platform for why AP decided it needed to file this new entry. It’s not as if the media world were aflame with conflict over “hopefully.”
Reaction, noted on SPJ blogs and elsewhere, largely fell as expected. Some noble guardians of denotative purity thrust their gauntlets upon the earth; the usual suspects in the anal-passive flock of descriptivists urged everyone to chillax. A handful of wags mocked the whole ordeal.
Here’s the dirty little secret about English: Unlike some other language — French, for example — English is possessed of no central authority that definitively prescribes rules of style and usage. “Proper English” remains proper solely by convention, not by the holy writ of lexicographers or grammarians somewhere.
Some sources (think AP, New York Times, New Yorker, Bill Safire, the late William F. Buckley) carry more relative weight than others. When one of the Big Guns defects in a giant fratricidal mushroom cloud, it’s a big deal. It becomes harder for writers and editors to see eye-to-eye on technical changes to prose. It cements a suboptimal rhythm that loses precision and efficiency in favor of “street cred.”
What perpelexes and concerns isn’t so much the kerfluffle over “hopefully” but rather the rationale at AP for introducing this entry at all. Why this? Why now? And — what’s next? It’s one thing for AP to introduce guidance for neologisms; it’s another matter altogether for AP to weigh in on a very old and not-really-all-that-controversial point of misuse. The AP’s ruling on “hopefully” is odd precisely because it’s a word that a majority of authorities recognize as a case of genuine misuse rather than creative redefinition.
I hope that this new entry doesn’t mark the beginning of an aggressively descriptivist new tenor for AP Stylebook.