I wouldn’t literally die if I didn’t have coffee in the morning, but I might “literally” die. The same holds true for learning something new every day. Fortunately, I’m an editor and learning new things goes with the territory. Some folks might think editors have all the rules memorized, but in fact there are so many rules and gray areas that editors cannot possibly know them all by heart. What editors do know is when to question something and where to find the answer.
Still, editors should strive to know (by heart) more than the average person about grammar, usage, and punctuation. But how and when do you read reference books when you’re not looking up something in particular?
An editor I know once tweeted that it is OK to take a style guide to bed with you. I prefer pleasure at night, study in the mornings. So today I started my day looking up a questionable word in Garner’s Modern American Usage. The word is “hopefully,” which I find myself occasionally using to begin a sentence and always feeling sheepish about it.
Garner tells us that “hopefully” is a slipshod extension. Slipshod extensions are words whose meanings have been extended as a result of popular use among the uneducated; other slipshod extensions include “literally,” “protagonist,” and “ad hoc.”
The original meaning of “hopefully” is “in a hopeful manner.” However, it is most commonly used to mean “I hope that” or “it is hoped that.” As in, “Hopefully, we will hear back from Joe by Wednesday.” This is now a widely accepted use, but Garner advises that you avoid using the word entirely “…if you’re concerned about your credibility: if you use it in the traditional way, many readers will think it odd; if you use it in the newish way, a few readers will tacitly tut-tut you.”
I often find myself beginning a sentence with “Hopefully,” as it so easily rolls off the mind’s tongue because I hear it almost every day in conversation. Even though I know that in most cases the reader will not quibble with it, from now on I will boldly avoid it and use “I hope that” instead (or “With any luck,” “If all goes well,” etc.).
It is always nice to find a black-and-white solution to these types of conundrums. “Just don’t use it” works in this case. For alternatives, consult a dictionary or thesaurus. And remember, if you don’t know what to do and don’t have immediate access to a style guide or dictionary, rewriting or “writing around it” is always an option.