Hopefully, Grammar Schools Will Go Back to Teaching Grammar

Stephen L. Carter recently wrote an article titled It Is to Be Hoped That “Hopefully” Will Fade Away. Unfortunately, the article reveals that Professor Carter doesn’t understand what sentence adverbs are or what they do. Nor does he understand what the mission of the Oxford English Dictionary has always been.

Carter wrote, “Alas, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary long ago caved on “hopefully….” That sentence suggests that Professor Carter is unaware of the guiding principle that the lexicographers who compiled the Oxford English Dictionary have followed since 1857, when work on the dictionary began. The Oxford English Dictionary was never intended to prescribe correct or acceptable usage of the English language. Instead, it has always been intended to describe how English has been used in the past and is currently being used. Thus, the Oxford English Dictionary has always been descriptivist, not prescriptivist. It therefore makes no sense to complain that the Oxford English Dictionary has “caved” on something.

Professor Carter feels that hopefully should not be used as a sentence adverb. Yet like many other people who have complained about how people use hopefully, he doesn’t understand what a sentence adverb is. I can tell that by the examples that he gives, such as “Ferociously, battles over misuse are likely to continue.” In that unnatural sentence, ferociously is not a sentence adverb!

A sentence adverb isn’t just an adverb that appears at the beginning of a sentence. In fact, a sentence adverb doesn’t even have to appear at the beginning of the sentence. A sentence adverb is a disjunct. A disjunct is an adverb or adverbial phrase that is not essential to the meaning of the clause or sentence. Instead, it expresses the speaker or writer’s attitude toward the idea expressed by that clause or sentence.

Consider the following sentence: “I think that it is fortunate that it didn’t rain yesterday.” You can collapse “I think that it is fortunate that” into one word: fortunately. Thus, you can say, “Fortunately, it didn’t rain yesterday.” Notice that the word fortunately does not modify anything in the sentence. Nor does it alter the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Instead, it concisely expresses the speaker or writer’s opinion about what the sentence is saying. Unfortunately, some people imagine that a sentence adverb should modify the verb in a sentence. If it doesn’t, they mistakenly conclude that the sentence adverb is dangling. They don’t realize that a sentence adverb is a disjunct. It isn’t intended to modify anything in the sentence!

It’s strange that so many self-appointed grammar experts have taken a stand against the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb while ignoring the use of other sentence adverbs, such as curiously, frankly, and regrettably. I wish that someone who has the opportunity to reach a large audience would explain what a sentence adverb is and what it does! The knowledge of how to use sentence adverbs can help one write more concisely. The ability to identify sentence adverbs in someone else’s speech or writing makes it easier to separate statements of fact from expressions of opinion.

I agree with Professor Carter that grammar and usage do matter in the larger scheme of things. The ideas and skills that one learns from studying grammar are essential not only for good writing but also for logical thinking. Since the days of ancient Greece, grammar was an essential part of the curriculum that prepared a freeborn person to take part in a democratic or republican form of government. Grammar was one of the classical liberal arts, which were called the liberal arts because they were the studies considered appropriate for free people, as opposed to slaves. Thus, it should have been obvious to anyone with a classical education that the decision to stop teaching grammar in public schools posed a threat to freedom, equality, and democracy.




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