Claims of misuse of ‘hopefully’ etc make my blood boil, literally

Don’t make linguists angry; you wouldn’t like them when they’re angry. katmary

Recently on The Conversation, Baden Eunson argued that the current uses of “hopefully”, “literally” and “begs the question” were prime examples of “atrocities in English [that] are committed every day”.

This has sent many a linguist into a spin, myself included. The “descriptivist” approach to linguistics tends to describe and analyse how language is spoken, as opposed to the “prescriptivist” approach, which concerns itself with enforcing rules around how it should be spoken.

Eunson claimed “atrocities in English are committed every day” with special reference to “three monstrosities”:

the distortion of the true meanings of beg the question, hopefully and literally – need to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Prescriptivist? Grammar fascist? You bet!

In reply, I would offer the following:


Eunson asked his readers to:

consider how you would feel if you heard a friend say, “I literally exploded with anger!”

Well, you might be literally stunned.

English’s two most commonly used intensifying adverbs are “actually” (from a Latin root meaning “act”) and “really” (from a Latin root originally meaning “property”, “wealth”). Both arose through figurative extensions of concrete meanings.

No-one thinks of actions or property when using those adverbs. They were recruited via a common metaphorical model in which actions (as opposed to words) and material things (as opposed to ideas etc.) are understood as more real than their counterparts.

The model is well attested across languages, and probably innate. Any term in a language that refers to something paradigmatically more real than something else can easily become an intensifying adverb via this model. Literal meanings are more real or basic than figurative meanings – hence the easy extension of “literally” to mean something like “really”.

This process is called “subjectivisation”, a core mechanism of language evolution. It’s how the words “will” and “going to” became markers of the future tense in English when they originally just denoted wanting and moving.

Through subjectivisation, speakers re-engineer existing elements in a language to better express point-of-view and the attitudinal and logical properties of their statements.

When I say “I literally died”, the addition of “literally” means the metaphor, in some paradoxical and poetic way, captures the reality of the situation more than some non-figurative alternative (e.g. “I was surprised”). The metaphor can thus be seen as the more basic, literal description (just as an impressionist painting can capture a scene more truly than a photograph).


As opposed to hopefully’s “proper” role as an ordinary adverb (an adverb modifying a verb and telling us how something happens), Eunson wrote that:

In the past 30 years or so, a new meaning has emerged, making the word hopefully a [disjunct](, or sentence adverb, as in “hopefully, it will be OK”.

So let’s look at the promotion of “hopefully” to a sentence adverb (an adverb expressing the speaker’s attitude to the content of the sentence). Sentence adverbs rank higher than verbal adverbs in our day-to-day communications. On balance, we are more interested in knowing what a speaker’s attitude to a statement is (e.g. that he or she hopes “Geelong will win” ) than the manner in which something is to happen (e.g. “Geelong will win convincingly”).

Humans are positively obsessed with communicating attitudes to each other, and will freely enlist other parts of speech to perform this higher duty. Many natural language logical operators (words such as “perhaps” and “probably”) are born this way and it is a completely valid process.

Eunson seems to suggest that, unlike other sentence adverbs, “hopefully” generates intolerable semantic ambiguity. This is just empirically wrong. Consider “she liked to sing strangely in the complete dark”.

This could mean either:

1) the fact that she liked to sing in the complete dark is, in the view of the speaker, strange.
2) that she sang in a strange manner in the complete dark. If the ambiguity created by “hopefully” as a sentence adverb were impeding communication to an appreciable degree, it would have been selected against, just like a deleterious gene in biology.

If anything, it’s the verbal adverb use that is fading to make way for the higher sentence adverb use.

The rising trend for “hopefully” versus the decreasing trend for “I hope” shows the two are in functional competition. This often happens in language where there are two competing solutions for a high-frequency need. Often the least-effort solution wins out, which is happening here.

If you think that when one friend utters to another, “Hopefully you’ll get the job”, anyone infers just from the word “hopefully” that the speaker – as the English writer Kingsley Amis put it – “basks in a fraudulent glow of confidence” you are either:

a) not a native speaker of English
b) disingenuously trying to appear to know more than anyone else about what ordinary words mean by inventing nonexistent connotations for them.

Begs the question

With regards to “begs the question” Eunson points to the phrase’s traditional use for a statement or claim that’s assumed to be true without proof, before disparaging its common usage as “raises the question”:

this is a logical error (“I like rock and roll because it’s the best kind of music around”) and not a synonym for prompts/ suggests/ gives rise to the question.

This phrase originated through a bad English translation of a bad Latin translation of a technical phrase in Greek logic. In Greek dialectics, “to beg” something is to ask your opponent in a debate to graciously concede a point you can use in making your argument.

The Latin is petitio principii (“begging for the original point”). The “original point” is the point at issue that needs to be proved, so asking for it is tantamount to asking for the conclusion without having to do any of the work proving it.

Somewhere along the line Latin principii got translated as “question”, making the original meaning even more obscure. So the phrase has simply been reinterpreted by native speakers in keeping with the meaning these words usually have in English. This is a kind of semantic reanalysis.

That’s one reason words from the same roots don’t mean the same thing in languages belonging to the same family, and why most of us can’t read Old English.

Prescriptivists invariably make embarrassing errors of analysis when they try to justify their shibboleths with anything even approaching a linguistic argument. All current forms of speech in English or any language were at some stage novel. That’s the literal truth.

See also:
Hopefully, literally, begs the question: the three most annoying misuses in English

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