Saturday, November 28, 2009

Handful of Homonyms


Friday, November 13, 2009

Hopefully, Helen

When I was in my twenties, I worked for a couple of years as a copy editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company in Boston. One of my co-workers was Helen Phillips. She was quite a bit older and has probably passed away by now. Then again, I shouldn't jump to that conclusion. Helen was such a staunch New Englander--ramrod-straight posture, strong convictions, healthy living habits--that she could very well still be around. I hope so!

Helen was the copy editor for the Roger Tory Peterson field guides to the birds, a very prestigious series, and she also worked on the Jane Goodall books. She was good at what she did. One thing I have never forgotten is her stand on the adverb "hopefully." She was adamantly opposed to its usage as a sentence modifier, as in, "Hopefully, I will win the lottery." "No, no, no!" she would tell us. The only correct usage of that adverb is in direct relationship to a verb, adjective or adverb, as in this example: "I went hopefully to the counter and bought a lottery ticket."

And Helen's argument is backed up by my American Heritage Dictionary, which says that only 44 percent of its usage panel calls the usage of the adverb in the first sentence acceptable.

Of course, my dictionary is about 40 years old, so the current panel may have different ideas. Also, I learned from the linguistics courses I took after I left Boston, grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive; it describes what people say, not what they should say.

But still, it's been very hard for me to break out from under Helen's wing. For the past several decades, I have religiously stopped myself every time I was about to start a sentence with "hopefully," remembering Helen's strong words and her imposing appearance. I have made myself recast my sentences time after time, out of respect for her.

Lately though, something has happened, and I've become rebellious. I have, on occasion, allowed myself to use "hopefully" as a sentence adverb. Call me lazy; it just seems that sometimes there is no other way.

Hopefully, Helen, you will forgive me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Do you know how to pronounce this word? Most people don't. They put the accent on the second syllable, the quis. That's wrong. The word is pronounced exquisite, with the accent on the first syllable, the ex.

I know this because one day, when I was a freshman at the Convent of the Sacred Heart high school for girls, now Woodlands Academy, in Lake Forest, Illinois, my English teacher, Mother Barsch (our nuns were called Mother, not Sister) went down the rows of the classroom and had everyone pronounce this word correctly.

It was a pet peeve of hers, I guess. And she did the same thing with the word "didn't," because some people pronounced it "dint," and that just about pushed her over the edge.