Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 6 June 2009

Dot Wordsworth hopes to come to a solution

Simon Heffer, the Telegraph columnist, has offered to stand for parliament against Sir Alan Haselhurst, the MP for Saffron Walden, who claimed £12,000 expenses for gardening. Mr Heffer commented on Sir Alan’s grammar, declaring that ‘the solecism “hopefully this website will also shed light on the parliamentary system” should have been beaten out of him decades ago’. It might have been, when use of hopefully was a shibboleth. Does it remain one?

‘Hopefully the critics will come to their senses,’ writes Patricia O’Connor in her new book Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. She is American, and I came across her verdict in The New York Times Book Review last month. She would include Mr Heffer among the ‘fuddy-duddies’ resisting evolution of usage.

The problem is that some adverbs (such as rapidly) qualify verbs and verbal phrases. Others (such as surprisingly) can qualify whole clauses or sentences. Until the 1960s hopefully was usually numbered among the former, although it had been used in the extended sense since the 1930s. The first citation, from 1932, is: ‘He would create… a selected list of ex-Governors, hopefully not including Pa and Ma Ferguson.’

It is strange that hopefully was singled out for obloquy, when a number of other adverbs had been behaving as shadily as MPs. ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,’ was not the first example of such phraseology. ‘Frankly, if you can like my niece, win her,’ wrote Bulwer Lytton in Lucretia, or, The Children of Night. Now, Lucretia might have been a shocking bad novel, but Lytton was reflecting the usage of his day (1846). The adverb seriously extended its range much earlier.

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