HUGE Database.

Robin Straaijer writes at Slate about the Hyper Usage Guide of English or HUGE database, based out of Leiden University, that includes “more than 75 usage guides and 123 usage problems in the English language, spanning a period of nearly 250 years.” He goes into some detail about the history of “hopefully” peevery (“It seems to have begun in Wilson Follett’s 1966 Modern American Usage“) and continues:

The HUGE database contains similar levels of detail for 122 other usage issues throughout the ages, including data: singular vs. plural; different to, from or than; they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun; and could of for could have. Although describing them all here would be a book in itself, more on these types of issues and how we made the database can be found at the project blog, Bridging the Unbridgeable: linguists, prescriptivists and the general public.

One of the general issues that we’ve noticed in creating HUGE is that newer usage guides tend to discuss a greater number of usage problems than older ones do. This suggests that more usage problems are “discovered” than disappear, either by being “forgotten” about or resolved. Furthermore, the database mainly contains usage problems relating to grammatical issues rather than word-choice or spelling. It seems then, that grammatical issues don’t easily “go out of fashion,” something that happens more easily with problems of word choice, spelling or pronunciation. The number of problems probably increases because writers of usage guides base themselves on existing guides and grammars, and add their pet peeves. What also plays a role is that usage guides continue to mention specific usage items, even if just to mention that they are no longer problematic—although if you have to explicitly mention that something is no longer an issue, it clearly still is.

It’s definitely a worthy project, and do check out that blog; still, I was put off right at the start when he talks about usage guides that “range from the venerable, like Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, to the modern, like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.” While that is, of course, literally true, I bristle at the equation of the utterly reliable and descriptivist MWDEU with the others, which all fall under the rubric of “I’m going to tell you what’s right and wrong based on my personal authority.” The term “usage guide” covers both, but “medical book” covers both Galen and, say, Clinical Procedures in Emergency Medicine; I know which one I’d rather have my doctor consulting. I know I’m extra touchy on this subject, but I had to say it anyway.


  1. Jeffry House says

    Cool. But my dad, a journalist in Wisconsin, was a follower of the “hopefully” peeve at least since the mid-1950s. He used to tell us ALL about it at the dinner table, and mentioned it in his column, called “Potpourri”.

    I don’t think he originated it though; it had the feel of received wisdom.

  2. I just realised that hoffentlich means “it is to be hoped that” hopefully. Those who fear confusion can always use “full of hope that” (hoffnungsvoll) for the other meaning.

  3. Crown, you are the bee’s knees of precision in German !! Very good point.

    Myself, I don’t peeve about “hopefully”. Instead I just don’t use it. I prefer to peeve on higher planes.

  4. But my dad, a journalist in Wisconsin, was a follower of the “hopefully” peeve at least since the mid-1950s.

    Yeah, I was surprised to hear it started as late as 1966 and am glad to hear it can be antedated. That shows the limitations of working strictly with a corpus of books.

  5. In Swedish hoppfull means ‘full of hope’, ‘having good expectations’. For ‘hopefully’ (‘hoffentlich’) we use the awkward construction förhoppningsvis, ‘for-hop(e)-ing-s-wise’.

  6. I should have said forhåpentligvis is the adverbial form of “it is to be hoped that” hopefully in Norwegian, though I can’t see any reason why “forhåpentlig” wouldn’t in theory work just as well.

    Thank you, Stu. It’s good to have the rare occasions pointed out when I’ve got something right in foreign.

  7. And I was not being sarcastic, either ! Your point was small, but useful and clearly articulated – just like bee’s knees.

  8. Jeremy Wheeler says

    Whilst I understand your reaction to anything that smacks of prescriptivist peeving, I wonder whether I might speak up in defence of Fowler? It is true that a number of his articles/entries are heavily influenced by his own preferences, or even prejudices, but he fully and frequently acknowledges that. My attachment to his dictionary stems from the discovery (in the 60s) that a usage guide could challenge prescriptive rules and support those challenges with evidence.*

    His article on prepositions at the end of clauses/sentences, for example, is a masterpiece of anti-peevery and bears comparison to anything in MWDEU. It seems to me that Fowler, by extensively quoting actual usage, was breaking new ground and comparisons with MWDEU, considering the corpora resources available to them, is not entirely unreasonable, surely?

    *Of course, in the 60s I had no concept of peevery and prescriptivism as labels, merely a natural revulsion against being told what to do by people who based their proclamations on nothing more than “because I say so”.

  9. The Fowler to buy is the one edited by David Crystal.

  10. Whilst I understand your reaction to anything that smacks of prescriptivist peeving, I wonder whether I might speak up in defence of Fowler?

    Oh, I’m a huge fan of Fowler! (See this LH rave about the edition AJP recommends.) I’m not knocking style guides per se, just saying there’s a category difference between MWDEU, which is scientific and provides actual evidence as well as arguments on both sides, and the rest, which are expressions of personal opinion even when backed up with (random/slanted) evidence chosen by the writer. As long as you know what you’re dealing with and bear in mind that you’re reading one person’s opinion (perhaps well informed, perhaps resonating with your own esthetic preferences), style guides are great, especially Fowler.

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