Your Queries Answered, Part 3

From the mailbag.

Baffled in British Columbia enquires, ‘I have this feeling that I shouldn’t use “hopefully” in the way that I do. Can you shed some light?’

Let there be light, Baffled.

The standard meaning of hopefully is ‘in a hopeful manner’. Example: The articling student started work hopefully, confident that she would find the answer.

There is a second – and more controversial – sense to the word, when it’s used to mean ‘It is hoped (that)’ or ‘I hope (that)’.  As in, The partner told the associate, “Hopefully, you’ll be finished this task before midnight.

Grammar nerds often criticise the second usage, on the grounds that it doesn’t clearly refer to the person who is doing the hoping.

But hopefully in this sense does perform a useful function (although I hope would work just as well). There is a reasonable argument that because people use hopefully in this way and everyone knows what they mean when they do, it has become acceptable.

Defenders of hopefully in sense 2 often trot out the analogous German word hoffentlich, which means ‘it is to be hoped’, and they note that its English equivalent has been used in the same way since the early eighteenth century (in America, at any rate), with objections only surfacing in the 1960s.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives both meanings, but says that the second is ‘avoided by many writers’.  You may want to do the same, if only to avoid being called out by a grammar nerd.

Bewildered on Bay Street asks, ‘Is it to “orient” or to “orientate”? “Oriented” or “Orientated”?’

Either actually, although orientate(d) is more common in the UK, orient(ed) in the US. This is one of those rare occasions when I would side with the Yanks; orientate just sounds fussy.

Orient also has the virtue of being the older form of the word, borrowed directly from the French orienter in the early eighteenth century.

Cranky in Calgary asks, ‘Is “Will do” an appropriate response from junior people to a request for assistance? I find it kind of annoying.’

Will do is both grammatically correct and stylistically traditional, Cranky.

On its own, however, it may seem a bit abrupt, even curt. An exclamation mark could help with that, turning what might seem begrudging into a more clearly enthusiastic expression of willingness.

Context is everything – and tone is notoriously difficult to convey electronically. (Although Cranky’s tone was unmistakable!)

Puzzled on the Prairies writes, ‘What is the correct plural of “factum”? Is it “facta” or “factums”?’

One sees both, but factums seems to be preferable.

But what about memoranda, then? Well, even though words ending in –um take –a as their plural form in Latin, we get factum from Latin via French (and civil law). As a result, we’ve adopted the naturalised French plural factums. Memorandum comes to us more directly from Latin, so takes –a (although memorandums is an old plural form (Shakespeare used it) that seems to be gaining traction in modern US and non-legal usage). Who said English was regular?

Factum is, incidentally, not a common word outside the Canadian legal context: the equivalent document is a brief in the US, a skeleton argument in England.

Troubled in Toronto writes, ‘I got a mark-up from a US law firm last week which changed “enure” to “inure”.  I always thought “enure” was the legal term (“this agreement will enure to the benefit of…”) and “inure” was for getting used to something unpleasant (“after two months backpacking across Asia, I was inured to the rock-bottom conditions of Cambodian hostels”). Am I right?’

My research indicates that the UK tendency is to use inure in your Cambodian hostels sense, enure in the legal sense.

But the two words derive from the same source (the obsolete noun ure, which means ‘use’ or ‘practice’), and ultimately mean the same thing: one gets used to Cambodian hostels, the legal benefit is put to one’s use.

The Oxford English Dictionary Online prefers inure, but its examples of usage go both ways (and enure is more frequent in the legal citations). Fowler’s Modern English Usage says the variant spellings are unnecessary and opts for inure only.

I’d still do it your way though, Troubled, unless pressed by a Yank.

Next: is that in– or un–?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Fortunately, one does not have to go to German to find adverbs describing the speaker’s view of what is said. Luckily, the likelihood of ambiguity in the use of “hopefully” is close to nil. Ulltimately, one can ignore the stylistic ignorami on this point.

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