January 24, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Hopefully & may, can, or could

Posted in can/could/may, hopefully tagged , , at 6:51 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Hopefully

A reader writes:

Happy New Year.  Hopefully you enjoyed your holidays.

 And that is my wlut query:  “hopefully”—as an adverb—used as a substitute for “it is to be hoped,” or some such phrasing.  Another example: “Hopefully we’ll be on time to the party.”  The problem is that every alternative to “hopefully” in that context sounds stilted or clunky or both.  Is “hopefully” gaining acceptance these days, as another example of the decline of civilization?

 Ah, yes, hopefully. We’ve been down this road before—back in 2008. And a bumpy road it remains, but it’s not as bumpy as it once was. This is the story: The original meaning of ‘hopefully’ was ‘in a hopeful manner.’ But really, when is the last time you used it to mean that?

“Can we go to the toy store this afternoon?” the children asked hopefully.

Here, the children are hoping to go to the toy store this afternoon. And they are asking about it in a hopeful manner.

The way we most often use it is to mean ‘it is to be hoped’ or ‘it is hoped’ as our reader indicates.

Hopefully, our hypothesis will be confirmed by the experiment.

Hopefully, there will be dessert after lunch.

And for a long time, strict grammarians argued against this usage. They were never successful, but they argued none the less. However, time and popular usage has finally worn the zealots down. While there are a few who hold on to the ‘in a hopeful manner’ meaning relentlessly, many others have acknowledged the evolution.

According to an article in the Washington Post in April, 2012, the Associated Press finally recognized that is okay to use ‘hopefully’ to mean ‘it is hoped’:

 AP’s approval of ‘hopefully’ symbolizes larger debate over language

By Monica Hesse, April 17, 2012

The barbarians have done it, finally infiltrated a remaining bastion of order in a linguistic wasteland. They had already taken the Oxford English Dictionary; they had stormed the gates of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. They had pummeled American Heritage into submission, though she fought valiantly — she continues to fight! — by including a cautionary italics phrase, “usage problem,” next to the heretical definition.

Then, on Tuesday morning, the venerated AP Stylebook publicly affirmed (via tweet, no less) what it had already told the American Copy Editors Society: It, too, had succumbed. “We now support the modern usage of hopefully,” the tweet said. “It is hoped, we hope.”

 There you have it. By the way, the AMA Manual of Style is silent on the matter, which makes sense since there is not much reason to use hopefully in scientific publications. Chicago hedges its bets:

hopefully. The old meaning of the word (“in a hopeful manner”) seems unsustainable; the newer meaning (“I hope” or “it is to be hoped”) seems here to stay. But many careful writers deplore the new meaning.

 Oh, heavens—that is just cowardly—and just how many is ‘many’ as in ‘many careful writers’? Maybe ‘some careful writers’ but certainly not ‘many.’

What I said before is to not use it in your scientific writing, and I still would advise this, but not for the same reason. Before I said that some will disapprove, but I am no longer concerned with that. It just has no place in scientific or medical writing. When we start our research or experiments, we probably experience a lot of hope, but by the time we write up the results, we are concerned with fact and precision. That’s it.

Tip 2: May, could, or can

A reader writes:

OK, another argument with the husband (we’re both passionate about English grammar!). He uses “may” often when I would use “could.” For example, “You may turn right here” whereas I would say “You could turn right here” or “Could you turn right here?” Another example: “You may stay home if you’d like” when I’d say “You could stay home if you’d like.” To me, “may” suggests that you’re giving permission for a certain action/behavior, but he does NOT see it that way. He thinks of it as simply voicing a possible action, similar to “could.”

What are your thoughts on this?

First, do I have to say that there’s a difference between informal and formal communication? I think we could use either in conversation, and the person with whom we were talking would have no difficulty understanding. But still, there are nuances that we should maintain in our formal writing.

The reader is correct, ‘may’ brings with it a sense of permission. It’s also terribly polite. But the reader’s husband is right also—it also expresses possibility.

You may applaud at the end of the scene.

You may not like the ending of that novel.

‘Can’ suggests ability. It sometimes signifies permission also.

You can get there by car or bicycle.

 Can I please stay up until the television show is over?

 ‘Could’ also indicates possibility but sometimes provides conditions, and the event might not occur.

You could take the highway or the back roads depending on how long a trip you are able to take.

You could turn at the next light if you wanted.

So the good news is that everyone’s right. That being said, I probably wouldn’t use ‘may’ except in the most formal of circumstances—I think most people would see it as stodgy and overly punctilious.

Yay! Everyone’s right.



  1. Michael said,

    I am aghast with the developments described in this piece. I understand and value that language is ever-evolving; what separates English from all other languages is the precision it can (not may) produce. It’s why it is the language of diplomacy and international commerce. An analogy occurs to me: students for a very long time have said 6×7 is 46. Are mathematicians saying, “What the hell, let’s give them that. Now go build a bridge.”?

    • dlseltzer said,

      That’s not an appropriate analogy although I appreciate your frustration. I still hate impact as a verb; however, I have to concede that it is considered acceptable, That’s part of the beauty of language–we should celebrate that.

    • Warsaw Will said,

      The reason English is the language of international commerce and diplomacy is surely not the result of any precision, but of the leading position of the US after WWII. It’s my understanding that the European Court of Justice uses French precisely because it can give more precision than English, in law at least.

      In TEFL the following three sentences are considered as more or less synonymous, with maybe a very slight difference as to the degree of possibility. And I wouldn’t call ‘may’ particularly formal here, at least not in British English, unlike using it for permission, which I agree, is ‘terribly polite’:

      He could still be in the office.
      He may still be the office.
      He might still be in the office.

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