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Sunday, August 9, 2020

A COMMENT ON A COMMENT ON A COMMENT

Marcel Proust reminds me of "hopefully" and "presently," which of course I should have recalled when writing my priggish post. If I may be serious for a moment (which seems like an unconscionable change in tone) what matters to me is not which words we use to mark certain distinctions and memorialize certain meanings but rather that we should not allow those distinctions and meanings to disappear from our discourse. "Presently" is supposed to mean "anon," which is to say "in a little while." The problem in using it also to mean "at the present moment" is that the obvious and useful distinction between the two gets lost. "Hopefully" is an even sadder case, since we really would like to have some way of expressing the fact that we are full of hope with regard to some matter while still being able to say "it is to be hoped that."

But the palm goes to David Palmeter for his little gem: "I am, I mean, like I'm with you. Know what I mean?" He has clearly spent more time with teenagers lately than I have.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don’t understand this business about the alleged misuse of hopefully. Here is the entry on the word from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that ought to exorcize the superstition that hopefully can’t respectably be used to mean “I hope” or “It is to be hoped.” Etc.
“Hopefully [dates back to at least 1583 for meaning #1]:
1 : in a hopeful manner
2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope *hopefully the rain will end soon*
[Usage note] In the 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which dates to the early 18th century and had been in fairly widespread use since at least the 1930s, underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.”
The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t find sense 2 objectionable, either. E.B. White didn’t like it, but too bad for him.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if there are any good examples to make this point. Another common example, especially for the academics among us: the word "theoretical" (and "theoretically"). As in, "I am writing a theoretical paper." Does that sentence mean the paper exists only in my mind, or that it is a paper about theory? Obviously it could be either, but I doubt many of us would be confused and we'd probably assume the latter (and we'd be correct most of the time). We could always say, I am writing a paper about theory, but do we need to do so? In formal writing, if there's ambiguity then the job of the editor comes in. In everyday speech, it's rarely a barrier to understanding. The whole effort to police this kind of stuff seems a bit...authoritarian.

You say you are are really concerned that "we should not allow those distinctions and meanings to disappear from our discourse." I don't think it's a legitimate worry. Other words are available to establish distinctions. For "presently," if you intend the meaning "anon," you are free to use anon--or try "soon," or "in a little while." Presently as a synonym for "currently" or "right now" makes a lot of sense, since we use the word "present" to mean something right here and now, something happening now: "I present you with this gift." For the average English speaker, it makes sense to think that adding the ly just extends the meaning of "present." It could also have shades of meaning that one might use for the purpose of distinction. Your background, education level, intention to play (or not) to your audience--all sorts of factors might lead you to one or another word. I just don't think it's worth your worry.

Tyler J said...

The problem is that 'anon' can mean both 'in a little while' and 'immediately'.

David Palmeter said...

Off topic:

My major occupation during the lock-down has been to spend time just about every day in preparing for an OLLI study group on Herodotus that I'll be doing via Zoom this Fall. One of the criticisms contemporary commentators make of Herodotus' analysis of why states acted the way they did is that he depends far too much on personal factors: this king insulted that king's daughter so that king invades this king etc. One commentator points out, however, that Herodotus lived in a very different time, a time when personal contacts and relationships were paramount:

"his familiarity with the ways and workings of power in a world dominated by ruling families and elites, and by despotic kings surrounded by a closed circle of kinsmen and subordinate officials, is very much greater than our own."

This was written a couple of decades before the 2016 election.