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People often ask why "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the
same thing. The English words come from separate Latin words:
_inflammare_ and the rarer _flammare_, which both meant "to
set on fire". Latin had two prefixes _in-_, one of which
meant "not"; the other, meaning "in", "into", or "upon", was the
one used in _inflammare_. "Inflammable" dates in English from
"Flammable" is first attested in an 1813 translation from Latin
It was rare until the 1920s when the U.S. National Fire Protection
Association adopted "flammable" because of concern that the "in-" in
"inflammable" might be misconstrued as a negative prefix.
Underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit.
Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941), the linguist who shares credit for the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language shapes thought, may have been
influential in promoting this change. Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department writes: "Though we have been unable to confirm that
Benjamin Whorf was responsible for the word's adoption, the theory
seems plausible enough: he was, in fact, employed by the Hartford
Fire Insurance Company from 1918 to 1940, and was widely recognized
for his work in fire prevention."
"Flammable" is still commoner in the U.S. than in the U.K.;
in figurative uses, "inflammable" prevails (e.g., "inflammable
Other words where an apparently negative prefix has little
effect on the meaning are: "to (dis)annul", "to (de)bone", "to
(un)bare", "to (un)loose", and "to (un)ravel". "Irregardless"
(which probably arose as a blend of "irrespective" and "regardless";
it was first recorded in western Indiana in 1912), means the same as
"regardless", but is not considered acceptable.
"A number of..."
"A number of ..." usually requires a plural verb. In "A number
of employees were present", it's the employees who were present, not
the number. "A number of" is just a fuzzy quantifier. ("A number
of..." may need a singular in the much rarer contexts where it does
not function as a quantifier: "A number of this magnitude requires
5 bytes to store.")
On the other hand, "the number of..." always takes the singular:
"The number of employees who were present was small." Here, it's
the number that was small, not the employees.
Abbreviations, repeated words after
Disputes occur about the legitimacy of placing after an acronym/
initialism the last word that is abbreviated in it, e.g., "AC
current", "the HIV virus". "AC" and "HIV" by themselves will
certainly suffice in most contexts. But such collocations tend to
become regarded as irreducible and uninterpretable words. "The
SNOBOL language" and "BASIC code" are as good as "the BASIC
language" and "SNOBOL code"; and why should "an LED display" (Light
Emitting Diode display) be reasonable, but not "an LCD display"
(Liquid Crystal Display display)? The extra word may guard against
ambiguity; e.g., "I've forgotten my PIN" might be mistaken in
speech as being about sewing, whereas "I've forgotten my PIN
number" identifies the context as ATMs.
It cannot be denied, though, that many such repetitions stem
from ignorance. The more familiar someone is with computer memory,
the less likely he is to say "ROM memory" or "RAM memory".
"a"/"an" before abbreviations
"A" is used before words beginning with consonants; "an", before
words beginning with vowels. This is determined by sound, not
spelling ("a history", "an hour", "a unit", "a European", "a one").
Formerly, "an" was usual before unaccented syllables beginning with
"h" ("an historian", "an hotel"); these are "now obsolescent" in
British English (Collins English Dictionary), although "an
historian" is retained in more dialects than "an hotel".
Before abbreviations, the choice of "a"/"an" depends on how
the abbreviation is pronounced: "a NATO spokesman" (because "NATO"
is pronounced /'neItoU/); "an NBC spokesman" (because "NBC" is
pronounced /Enbi:'si:/) "a NY spokesman" (because "NY" is read as
"New York (state)").
A problem: how can a foreigner *tell* whether a particular
abbreviation is pronounced as a word or not? Two non-foolproof
(1) It's more likely to be an acronym if it *looks* as if it could
be an English word. "NATO" and "scuba" do; "UCLA" and "NAACP"
(2) It's more likely to be an acronym if it's a *long* sequence of
letters. "US" is short; "EBCDIC" is too bloody long to say as
"E-B-C-D-I-C". (But of course, abbreviations that can be broken
down into groups, like "TCP/IP" and "AFL-CIO", are spelled out
because the groups are short enough.)
Is it "a FAQ" or "an FAQ"? These days, probably the former,
although some of us do say "an F-A-Q".
"A, B and C" vs. "A, B, and C"
This is known as the "serial comma" dispute. Both styles are
common. The second style was recommended by Fowler, and is Oxford
University Press house style (hence it is also called "the Oxford
comma"; it is also known as "the Harvard comma"); it is more common
in the U.S. than elsewhere. Although either style may cause
ambiguity (in "We considered Miss Roberts for the roles of Marjorie,
David's mother, and Louise", are there two roles or three?), the
style that omits the comma is more likely to do so: "Tom, Peter, and
I went swimming." (Without the comma, one might think that the
sentence was addressed to Tom.) "I ordered sandwiches today. I
ordered turkey, salami, peanut butter and jelly, and roast beef."
Without that last comma, one would have a MIGHTY weird sandwich!
-- Gabe Wiener. James Pierce reports that an author whose custom it
was to omit the comma dedicated a novel: "To my parents, Ayn Rand
Possessive before a gerund:
"you saying" vs. "your saying"
In "You saying you're sorry alters the case", the subject of
"alters" is not "you", since the verb is singular. Fowler called
this construction the "fused participle", and recommended "Your
saying..." instead. The fused participle *can* lead to ambiguity:
in _Woe is I_ (Grosset/Putnam, 1996, ISBN 0-399-14196-0), Patricia
T. O'Conner contrasts the sentences "Basil dislikes that woman's
wearing shorts" and "Basil dislikes that woman wearing shorts":
"Both are correct, but they mean different things. In the first
example, Basil dislikes shorts on the woman. In the second, he
dislikes the woman herself. The lesson? Lighten up, Basil!"
Other commentators have been less critical of the fused
participle than Fowler. Jespersen traced the construction as the
last in a series of developments where gerunds, which originally
functioned strictly as nouns, have taken on more and more verb-like
properties ("the showing of mercy" => "showing of mercy" => "showing
mercy"). Partridge defends the construction by citing lexical
noun-plus-gerund compounds. In most of these (e.g.,
"time-sharing"), the noun functions as the object of the gerund, but
in some recent compounds (e.g., "machine learning"), it functions as
“who” and "whom"
In informal English, one can probably get away with using "who"
all the time, except perhaps after a preposition.
The prescription for formal English is: use "who" as the
subjective form (like "he"/"she"/ "they"), and "whom" as a direct or
indirect object (like "him"/ "her"/"them"):
He gave it to me. Who gave it to me? That's the man who
gave it to me.
I gave it to him. Whom did I give it to? That's the man
whom I gave it to.
I gave him a book. Whom did I give a book? That's the man
whom I gave a book.
(The construction in the last two sentences is rare. Usually a
preposition, in this case "to", is used when the indirect object
is separated from the direct object.)
Note the difference between:
I believe (that) he is drowned. Who do I believe is
drowned? That is the man who I believe is drowned.
I believe him to be drowned. Whom do I believe to be
drowned? That is the man whom I believe to be drowned.
Note also, that unless you say "It is he", you cannot rely on these
transformations for complements of the verb "to be". You may say
"It's him", but the question is "Who is it?", definitely not "Whom
The case of "whoever" is determined by its function in the
dependent clause that it introduces, not by its function in the main
clause: "I like whoever likes me." "Whomever I like likes me."
Very few English-speakers make these distinctions instinctively;
most of those who observe them learned them explicitly. Instincts
would lead them to select case based on word order rather than on
syntactic function. Hence Shakespeare wrote "Young Ferdinand,
whom they suppose is drowned". But Fowler called this a solecism in
modern English; it might be better to abstain from "whom" altogether
if one is not willing to master the prescriptive rules.
"try and," "be sure and," "go" + verb
These colloquial constructions are synonymous, or nearly so,
with "try to", "be sure to", and "go and" respectively, those
equivalents being undisputedly acceptable in both formal and
informal style. They are syntactic curiosities in that they can
only be used in conjugations identical to the infinitive: we can
say "to try and do it", "try and do it" (imperative), "I'll try
and do it", "if I try and do it", and "he did try and make the
best of it", but not "if he tries and does it" or "he tried and
did it" with the same sense.
Some commentators maintain that there is no semantic difference
whatever between "try and" and "try to"; certainly in many contexts
they are interchangeable: "I will try to/and attend the party
tonight." But in other contexts "try and" seems to imply success:
"Do try and behave" suggests that the only reason the listener is
not behaving is that he is not trying to. Then there are the ironic
contexts where "try and" implies failure: "Try and make me move."
Here, "try to" would not be idiomatic.
WDEU suggests that "try and" may actually be older than "try
to"; both are first attested in the 17th century. "Go" + bare
infinitive was used by Shakespeare ("I'll go see if the bear be
gone"; "I'll go buy spices for our sheep-shearing") but is now
nearly confined to informal American usage, and elsewhere to a few
fixed expressions ("hide and go seek", "He can go hang for all I
Most handbooks disapprove of these expressions in formal
style; even the permissive WDEU admits of "try and" that "most of
the examples are not from highly formal styles". Fowler wrote,
"It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when
it comes natural"; but he also wrote that it is "almost confined to
exhortations and promises", and these are more common in informal
than in formal contexts.
Many phrases often criticized as "redundant" are redundant in
most contexts, but not in all. "Small in size" is redundant in most
contexts, but not in "Although small in size, the ship was large in
glory." "Consensus of opinion" is redundant in most contexts, but
not in "Some of the committee members were coerced into voting in
favor of the motion, so although the motion represents a consensus
of votes, it does not represent a consensus of opinion."
Context can negate part of the definition of a word. "Artificial
light" is light that is artificial (= "man-made"), but "artificial
flowers" are not flowers (i.e., genuine spermatophyte reproductive
orders) that are artificial. In the latter phrase, "artificial"
negates part of the definition of "flower". The bats known as
"false vampires" do not feed on blood: "false" negates part of the
definition of "vampire".
The ordinary definition of "fact" includes the idea of "true"
(e.g., fact vs. fiction); the meaning of "fact" does have other
aspects (e.g., fact vs. opinion). Context can negate the idea of
"true". Fowler himself used the phrase "Fowler's facts are wrong;
therefore his advice is probably wrong, too" (a conclusion that he
was eager to avert, moving him to defend his facts) in one of the
S.P.E. tracts. It follows that "true fact" need not be a redundancy.
"that kind of a thing"
The forms you're likely to encounter, in roughly decreasing
order of formality, are "that kind of thing", "those kinds of
things", "those kind of things", and "that kind of a thing". Sir
Ernest Gowers wrote: "it is as well to humor the purists by
writing _things of that kind_."
"that" vs. "which"
In "The family that prays together stays together", the clause
"that prays together" is called a RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE because it
restricts the main statement to a limited class of family. In
"The family, which is the basic unit of human society, is
weakening", "which ... society" is called a NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSE
because it makes an additional assertion about the family without
restricting the main statement.
It is generally agreed that nonrestrictive clauses should be
set off by commas; restrictive clauses, not. Nonrestrictive
clauses are now nearly always introduced by "which" or "who"
(although "that" was common in earlier centuries). Fowler
encourages us to introduce restrictive clauses with "that"; but this
is not a binding rule (although some copy-editors do go on "which
hunts"), and indeed is not possible if a preposition is to precede
the relative pronoun. "Which" seem to have more "weight" than
"that"; the weight often just adds starch, but it can be of use
when the relative pronoun is separated from the antecedent: "This
is the only book in my personal library which I haven't read."
Often, too, euphony favors one or the other.
Object relative pronouns can be omitted altogether ("the book
that I read" or "the book I read"); in standard English, subject
relative pronouns cannot be omitted, although in some varieties
of informal spoken English, they are ("There's a man came into
the office the other day").
Robert Sigley (Robert.Sigley@vuw.ac.nz) is writing a Ph.D.
thesis on relative pronoun choice.
Sir Ernest Gowers wrote in _The Complete Plain Words_ (HMSO,
1954): "The well-known [...] rule against splitting an infinitive
means that nothing must come between 'to' and the infinitive. It is
a bad name, as was pointed out by Jespersen [...] 'because we have
many infinitives without _to_, as "I made him go". _To_ therefore
is no more an essential part of the infinitive than the definite
article is an essential part of a substantive, and no one would think
of calling _the good man_ a split substantive.' It is a bad rule
too; it increases the difficulty of writing clearly [...]." The
split infinitive construction goes back to the 13th century, but was
relatively rare until the 19th. No split infinitives are to be
found in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Pope, or Dryden, or in
the King James Version of the Bible.
Fowler wrote (in the article POSITION OF ADVERBS, in MEU) that
"to" + infinitive is "a definitely enough recognized verb-form to
make the clinging together of its parts the natural and normal
thing"; "there is, however, no sacrosanctity about that
arrangement". There are many considerations that should govern
placement of adverbs: there are other sentence elements, he said,
such as the verb and its object, that have a *stronger* affinity for
each other; but only avoidance of the split infinitive "has become
Thus, although in "I quickly hid it", the most natural place for
"quickly" is before "hid", "I am going to hide it quickly" is
slightly more natural than "I am going to quickly hide it". But "I
am going to quickly hide it" is itself preferable to "I am going
quickly to hide it" (splitting "going to" changes the meaning from
indicating futurity to meaning physically moving somewhere), or to
"I am going to hide quickly it" (separation of the verb from its
object). And even separating the verb from its object may become
the preferred place for the adverb if "it" is replaced by a long
noun phrase ("I am going to hide quickly any trace of our ever
having been here").
Phrases consisting of "to be" or "to have" followed by an adverb
and a participle are *not* split infinitives, and constitute the
natural word order. "To generally be accepted" and "to always have
thought" are split infinitives; "to be generally accepted" and "to
have always thought" are not.
Certain kinds of adverbs are characteristically placed before
"to". These include negative and restrictive adverbs: "not" ("To
be, or not to be"), "never", "hardly", "scarcely", "merely", "just";
and conjunctive adverbs: "rather", "preferably", "moreover",
"alternatively". But placing adverbs of manner in this position is
now considered good style only in legal English ("It is his duty
faithfully to execute the provisions...").
Clumsy avoidance of split infinitives often leads to ambiguity:
does "You fail completely to recognize" mean "You completely fail
to recognize", or "You fail to completely recognize"? Ambiguous
split infinitives are much rarer, but do exist: does "to further
cement trade relations" mean "to cement trade relations further",
or "to promote relations with the cement trade"?
The most frequently cited split infinitive is from the opening
voice-over of _Star Trek_: "to boldly go where no man has gone
before". (_Star Trek: The Next Generation_ had "one" in place of
"man".) Here, "boldly" modifies the entire verb phrase: the
meaning is "to have the boldness that the unprecedentedness of the
destinations requires". If "boldly" were placed after "go", it
would modify only "go", changing the meaning to "to go where no
man has gone before, and by the way, to go there boldly".
Hardly any serious commentator believes that infinitives should
never be split. The dispute is between those who believe that split
infinitives should be avoided when this can be done with no
sacrifice of clarity or naturalness, and those who believe that no
effort whatever should be made to avoid them.
Preposition at end of sentence
Yes, yes, we've all heard the following anecdotes:
(1) Winston Churchill was editing a proof of one of his books, when
he noticed that an editor had clumsily rearranged one of Churchill's
sentences so that it wouldn't end with a preposition. Churchill
scribbled in the margin, "This is the sort of English up with which
I will not put." (This is often quoted with "arrant nonsense"
substituted for "English", or with other variations. The Oxford
Dictionary of Quotations cites Sir Ernest Gowers' _Plain Words_
(1948), where the anecdote begins, "It is said that Churchill...";
so we don't know exactly what Churchill wrote. According to the
Oxford Companion to the English Language, Churchill's words were
"bloody nonsense" and the variants are euphemisms.)
(2) The Guinness Book of (World) Records used to have a category
for "most prepositions at end". The incumbent record was a sentence
put into the mouth of a boy who didn't want to be read excerpts from
a book about Australia as a bedtime story: "What did you bring that
book that I don't want to be read to from out of about 'Down Under'
up for?" Mark Brader (email@example.com -- all this is to the best of his
recollection; he didn't save the letter, and doesn't have access to
the British editions) wrote to Guinness, asking: "What did you say
that the sentence with the most prepositions at the end was 'What
did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to from out of
about "Down Under" up for?' for? The preceding sentence has one
more." Norris McWhirter replied, promising to include this
improvement in the next British edition; but actually it seems that
Guinness, no doubt eventually realizing that this could be done
recursively, dropped the category.
(3) "Excuse me, where is the library at?"
"Here at Hahvahd, we never end a sentence with a preposition."
"O.K. Excuse me, where is the library at, *asshole*?"
Fowler and nearly every other respected prescriptivist see
NOTHING wrong with ending a clause with a preposition; Fowler
calls it a "superstition". ("Never end a sentence with a
preposition" is how the superstition is usually stated, although it
would "naturally" extend to any placement of a preposition later
than the noun or pronoun it governs.) Indeed, Fowler considers "a
good land to live in" grammatically superior to "a good land in
which to live", since one cannot say *"a good land which to inhabit".
"none is" vs. "none are"
With mass nouns, you have to use the singular. ("None of the
wheat is...") With count nouns, you can use either the singular or
the plural. ("None of the books is..." or "None of the books
are...") Usually, the plural sounds more natural, unless you're
trying to emphasize the idea of "not one", or if the words that
follow work better in the singular.
The fullest (prescriptive) treatment is in Eric Partridge's book
_Usage and Abusage_ (Penguin, 1970, 0-14-051024-9). In the original
edition Partridge had prescribed the singular in certain cases, but
a rather long-winded letter from a correspondent persuaded him to
"like" vs. "such as"
The Little, Brown Handbook (6th ed., HarperCollins, 1995) says:
"Strictly, _such as_ precedes an example that represents a larger
subject, whereas _like_ indicates that two subjects are comparable.
_Steve has recordings of many great saxophonists such as Ben Webster
and Lee Konitz._ _Steve wants to be a great jazz saxophonist like
Ben Webster and Lee Konitz._" Nobody would use "such as" in the
second sentence; the disputed usage is "like" in the first sentence.
Opposing it are: earlier editions of The Little, Brown Handbook
(which did not use the hedge "strictly"); the _Random House English
Language Desk Reference_ (1995); _The Globe and Mail Style Book_
(Penguin, 1995); _Webster's Dictionary & Thesaurus_ (Shooting Star
Press, 1995); _Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art_ by James
Kilpatrick (Andrews and McMeel, 1993); _The Wordwatcher's Guide to
Good Writing and Grammar_ by Morton S. Freeman (Writer's Digest,
1990); _Word Perfect: A Dictionary of Current English Usage_ by
John O. E. Clark (Harrap, 1987); and _Keeping Up the Style_ by
Leslie Sellers (Pitman, 1975).
The OED, first edition, in its entry on "like" (which is in a
section prepared in 1903), said that "in modern use", "like" "often
= 'such as', introducing a particular example of a class respecting
which something is predicated". Merriam-Webster Editorial
Department unearthed the following 19th-century citations for me:
"Good sense, like hers, will always act when really called upon",
Jane Austen, _Mansfield Park_, 1814; "A straight-forward,
open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like
Miss Taylor, may be safely left to their own concerns", Jane Austen,
_Emma_, 1816; "[...] to argue that because a well-stocked island,
like Great Britain, has not, as far as is known [...]", Charles
Darwin, _Origin of the Species_, 1859.
Fowler apparently saw nothing wrong with "like" in this sense:
in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, he gave "resembling, such as"
without a usage label as one its meanings, and gave the example "a
critic like you", which he explained as "of the class that you
exemplify". And he used it himself in the passage quoted under
"'less' vs. 'fewer'" above. More commonly, though, he wrote "such
... as" when using examples to define the set ("such bower-birds'
treasures as _au pied de la lettre_, _a` merveille_, [...] and
_sauter aux yeux_"), and "as" or "such as" when the words preceding
the examples sufficed to define the set ("familiar words in -o, as
_halo_ and _dado_"; "simple narrative poems in short stanzas, such
as _Chevy Chase_"). This is the same restrictive vs. nonrestrictive
mentioned under "'that' vs. 'which'": "Ballads, such as Chevy Chase,
can be danced to" would imply that all ballads can be danced to,
whereas "Such ballads as Chevy Chase can be danced to" would not.
"Such ... as" is now confined to formal use, and for informal
restrictive uses where the example is not introduced merely for the
sake of example, but is the actual topic of the sentence, "like" is
now obligatory: "I'm so glad to have a friend like Paul." _Guide
to Canadian English Usage_ by Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine
(Oxford, 1997, ISBN 0-19-540841-1) rightly points out that "such as"
would not be idiomatic here.
_Modern American Usage_ by Wilson Follett (Hill and Wang, 1966)
says: "_Such as_ is close in meaning to _like_ and may often be
interchanged with it. The shade of difference between them is that
_such as_ leads the mind to imagine an indefinite group of objects
[...]. The other comparing word _like_ suggests a closer
resemblance among the things compared [...]. [...P]urists object
to phrases of the type _a writer like Shakespeare_, _a leader like
Lincoln_. No writer, say these critics, _is_ like Shakespeare; and
in this they are wrong; writers are alike in many things and the
context usually makes clear what the comparison proposes to our
attention. _Such as Shakespeare_ may sound less impertinent, but
if Shakespeare were totally incomparable _such as_ would be open to
the same objection as _like_." Bernstein, in _Miss Thistlebottom's
Hobgoblins_ (Farrar, 1971), agrees, calling those who object to
"German composers like Beethoven" "nit-pickers".
"like" vs. "as"
For making comparisons (i.e., asserting that one thing is similar
to another), the prescribed choices are:
1. A is like B.
2. A behaves like B.
3. A behaves as B does.
4. A behaves as in an earlier situation.
In 1 and 2, "like" governs a noun (or a pronoun or a noun phrase).
In 3, "as" introduces a clause with a noun and a verb. In 4, "as"
introduces a prepositional phrase. Look at what the word
introduces, and you will know which to use.
In informal English, "like" is often used in place of "as" in
sentences of type 3 and 4. "Like" has been used in the sense
of "as if" since the 14th century, and in the sense of "as" since
the 15th century, but such use was fairly rare until the 19th
century, and "a writer who uses the construction in formal style
risks being accused of illiteracy or worse" (AHD3). "Like" in 1
and 2 is a preposition; "as"/"like" in 3 or 4 and "as if" are
conjunctions. Fowler put "_Like_ as conjunction" first in his list
of "ILLITERACIES" (he defined "illiteracy" as "offence against the
In some sentences of type of 3, "as" may sound too formal:
"Pronounce it as you spell it." To avoid both this formality and
the stigma of "like" here, you may use "the way": "Pronounce it the
way you spell it." But this solution is available only if you are
specifying a single way; it doesn't work, for example, in "Play it
as it's never been played before." ("Play it in a way..." might
work here, but lacks the connotations of enthusiasm and excellence
that "play it as" has.)
The most famous use of "like" as a conjunction was in the 1950s
slogan for Winston Cigarettes: "Winston tastes good, like a
cigarette should." The New Yorker wrote that "it would pain [Sir
Winston Churchill] dreadfully", but in fact conjunctive "like" was
used by Churchill himself in informal speech: "We are overrun by
them, like the Australians are by rabbits." "Like" in the sense of
"as if" was, until recently, more often heard in the Southern U.S.
than elsewhere, and was perceived by Britons as an Americanism.
When used in this sense, it is never now followed by the inflected
past subjunctive: people say "like it is" or "like it was", not
"like it were".
Sometimes, "as" introduces a noun phrase with no following verb.
When it does, it does not signify a qualitative comparison, but
a) indicate a role being played. "They fell on the supplies as men
starving" means that they were actually starving men; in "They fell
on the supplies like men starving", one is *comparing* them to
starving men. "You're acting as a fool" might be appropriate if you
obtained the job of court jester; "You're acting like a fool"
expresses the more usual meaning.
b) introduce examples. ("Some animals, as the fox and the squirrel,
have bushy tails.") "Such as" and "like" are more common in this use.
For the use of "like" here, see the next entry.
c) be short for "as ... as": "He's deaf as a post" means "He's as
deaf as a post" (a quantitative comparison).
"hopefully" and "thankfully"
The traditional, undisputed senses of these words are active:
"in a hopeful manner", "in a thankful manner".
The OED's first citation for "hopefully" in the passive sense
(= "It is to be hoped that") is from 1932, but no unmistakable
citation has been found between then and 1954. (WDEU has three
ambiguous citations dated 1941, 1951, and 1954.) WDEU's first
citation for the passive sense of "thankfully" (= "We can be
thankful that") is from 1963. These uses became popular in the
early '60s, and have been widely criticized on the grounds that
they should have been "hopably" and "thankably" (on the analogy of
"arguably", "predictably", "regrettably", "inexplicably", etc.),
and on the grounds that "I hope" is more direct.
The disputed, passive use of "hopefully" is often referred to as "sentence-modifying"; but it can also modify a single word, as is hopefully clear from this example. :-) Most adverbs that can modify sentences -- including "apparently", "clearly", "curiously", "evidently", "fortunately", "ironically", "mercifully", "sadly", and the "-ably" examples above -- can be converted into "It is apparent that", etc. But a few adverbs are used in a way that instead must be construed with an ellipsis of "to speak" or "speaking". These include "briefly" (the OED has citations of "briefly" used in this way from 1514 on, including one from Shakespeare), "seriously" (1644; used by Fowler in his article DIDACTICISM in MEU), "strictly" (1680), "roughly" (1841), "frankly" (1847), "honestly" (1898), "hopefully", and "thankfully". Acquisition of such a use is far from automatic; for example, no one uses "fearfully" in a manner analogous to "hopefully".
AHD3 says: "It might have been expected that the flurry of objections to _hopefully_ would have subsided once the usage became well established. Instead, increased currency of the usage appears only to have made the critics more adamant. In the 1969 Usage Panel survey the usage was acceptable to 44 percent of the Panel; in the most recent survey  it was acceptable to only 27 percent. [...] Yet the Panel has not shown any signs of becoming generally
more conservative: in the very same survey panelists were disposed to accept once-vilified usages such as the employment of _contact_ and _host_ as verbs." AHD3 quotes William Safire as saying: "The word 'hopefully' has become the litmus test to determine whether one is a language snob or a language slob."
Discussions about "hopefully" and "thankfully" go round and round forever without reaching a conclusion. We advise you to refrain.
"Singular 'they'" is the name generally given to the use of "they", "them", "their", or "theirs" with a singular antecedent such as "someone" or "everyone", as in "Everyone was blowing their nose." (It does not refer to the use of singular verbs in such mock-illiterate sentences as "Them's the breaks" and "Them as has, gets." Any verb agreeing with a singular "they" is plural: "Someone killed him, and they are going to pay for it.")
Singular "they" has been used in English since the time of Chaucer. Prescriptive grammarians have traditionally (since 1746, although the actual practice goes right back to 1200) prescribed "he": "Everyone was blowing his nose." In 1926, Fowler wrote that singular "they" had an "old-fashioned sound [...]; few good modern writers would flout the grammarians so conspicuously." But in recent decades, singular "they" has gained popularity as a result of the move toward gender-neutral language.
For a defense of singular "they", with examples from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and others, see Henry Churchyard's page at <http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~churchh/austheir.html>. But note that not all of us are as keen on singular "they" as Henry is. Asked to fill in the blank in sentences such as "A patient who doesn't accurately report ___ sexual history to the doctor runs the risk of misdiagnosis", only 3% of AHD3's usage panel chose "their". AHD3's usage note says: "this solution ignores a persistent intuition that expressions such as _everyone_ and _each student_ should in fact be treated as grammatically singular." An example from Fowler wittily demonstrates how singular "they" never seems to agree perfectly: "Everyone was blowing their nose"? "Everyone was blowing their noses"? "Everyone were blowing their noses"?
Proposals for other gender-neutral pronouns get made from time to time, and some can be found in actual use ("sie" and "hir" are the ones most frequently found on Usenet). Cecil Adams, in _Return of the Straight Dope_ (Ballantine, 1994, ISBN 0-345-38111-4), says that some eighty such terms have been proposed, the first of them in the 1850s. John Chao (firstname.lastname@example.org) was constructing a long FAQ on this topic: <http://www.lumina.net/OLD/gfp/>.
Discussions about gender-neutral pronouns tend to go round and
round and never reach a conclusion. Please refrain.
(We also get disputes about the use of the word "gender" in the sense of "sex", i.e., of whether a human being is male or female. This also dates from the 14th century. By 1900 it was restricted to jocular use, but it has now been revived because of the "sexual relations" sense of "sex".)
"Due to" meaning "caused by" is undisputedly correct in contexts
where "due" can be construed as an adjective (e.g., "failure due to
carelessness"). Its use in contexts where "due" is an adverb
("He failed due to carelessness") has been disputed. Fowler says
that "_due to_ is often used by the illiterate as though it had
passed, like _owing to_, into a mere compound preposition". But
Fowler was writing in 1926; what hadn't happened then may well
have happened by now.
The spelling "alright" is recorded from 1887. It was defended
by Fowler (in one of the Society for Pure English tracts, not in
MEU), on the analogy of "almighty" and "altogether", and on the
grounds that "The answers are alright" (= "The answers are O.K.") is
less ambiguous than "The answers are all right" (which could mean
"All the answers are right"). But it is still widely condemned.