Grammar Regulators Concede to the 'Modern Usage' of a Word

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Earlier today, the Associated Press's Stylebook sent out the following tweet:

Appreciate it I do; this is great news. We now support the modern usage! [Insert cheeky use of "hopefully" here!] Because among the ranks of the Grammar Rules We Knowingly Break Because Those Rules Are Stupid, the long-standing edict against "hopefully" has long held a place at the top. "Hopefully," the law of grammar has informed us, should be used only in the most literal sense: to describe something that is done in a hopeful manner. Used in the way the majority of English-speakers use it -- as a proxy for hope -- the word is, we are told, simply wrong. 

As the AP put it in a previous tweet:

Got that? Do not use it.  

The anti-"hopefully" mandate has been a bad grammar rule in the manner of all bad grammar rules: It doesn't track with the way people actually use the language. The rule is completely out of touch with those it's meant to regulate. And while grammar guides, by nature, will always represent a tension between the vernacular use of a language and the normative use of it ... still, when everyone's just ignoring a rule, that rule demands amendment. We talk about language being a living thing; implied in the cliché is the idea that, for living things, "growth" and "life" are pretty much the same. And a good way to help language's growth is to rid it of unnecessary hindrances. Just as the AP has done today.

So: Yay! The change is a small thing, but it's a reminder of a broader truth: that language evolves -- just like the Internet itself -- as a product of end-user innovation. Top-down guidelines and regulations can be valuable; but they are valuable only insofar as they reflect people's habits and assumptions. And if the regulators want to preserve their authority, they must be as open to evolution as the thing they claim to regulate. Language, like any good technology, must be responsive to the people who use it.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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