majority rules


If language were set in concrete, there would be no call for new books on how to use it. These days, most such books are at pains not to seem prescriptive. In 1996, Patricia T. O’Conner gave us the admirably entitled “Woe Is I,” aptly subtitled “The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.” In this lucid and sensible book she criticized the use of “hopefully” to mean “It is hoped” or “I hope”: “Join the crowd and abuse ‘hopefully’ if you want; I can’t stop you. But maybe if enough of us preserve the original meaning it can be saved. One can only hope.” Now, in “Origins of the Specious,” she says, “I’m not hopeful about convincing all the fuddy-duddies out there, but here goes: It’s hopeless to resist the evolution of ‘hopefully.’ ” So use it, she says. “Hopefully, the critics will come to their senses.” According to how you look at it, O’Con­ner has turned on her fellow preservationists (“fuddy-duddies,” is it?), or she has evolved along with the language. In “Woe Is I,” she took a hard line on the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” Now she says the one, generally speaking, means the other, because “as we all know, in English the majority rules.

more from Roy Blount Jr. in the NYT here.