Hopefully, Wistful No More

[This article originally appeared in the March 2006 (Vol. 29, No. 3) issue of The Editorial Eye.]


As an introductory sentence modifier, hopefully is accepted by some as perfectly legitimate and vilified by others, such as Edward Johnson in the Handbook of Good English, as “sloppy vagueness.” I am talking about the use of hopefully to mean “it is to be hoped that,” as in this sentence: “Hopefully, you aren’t gnashing your teeth because of this sentence.”

It is a usage that “inflames passions,” according to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. It has been called the most controversial usage in English. I used to belong to the faction of teeth-gnashers and disapproving mutterers, convinced that it was a misusage of the adverb, which —strictly speaking— means “in a hopeful manner.” It drove me nuts.

But over time, I gave up the fight. I figured that common usage eventually trumps the purists, though I might still sigh inwardly. Fortunately, I never became a prig about correcting it. A good thing, because I am now convinced that I was wrong all along. Wrong—and hypocritical.

Strangely, I would get in a snit over hopefully, but I didn’t so much as blink at beginning a sentence with words like fortunately, strangely, clearly, oddly, luckily, remarkably, and so on. If editors like me were as consistent as we like to think, we would have been piqued all along about Rhett telling Scarlett, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with other introductory modifiers. They all fall into a class of words known as sentence adverbs—words or phrases that apply to an entire sentence, not just the verb, another adverb or an adjective. (Depending on which book you consult, you might see them called disjuncts, dangling adverbs, or floating adverbs.)

Sentence adverbs are an economical way of expressing our attitude or opinion toward the statements that follow them. They avoid the dependent relative clauses that can pad a statement. Instead of having to say “It was fortunate that…,” we can say “Fortunately….” Such usages are considered perfectly correct and never cause so much as a raised eyebrow (unless, of course, the reader does not share the writer’s opinion of what constitutes good fortune).

Since sentence adverbs are so widely used and accepted, why the ongoing battle over hopefully? Quite simply, because some don’t accept it as a sentence adverb. William Strunk and E.B. White strenuously objected to using hopefully to mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped,” saying in The Elements of Style that it “is not merely wrong, it is silly.” Unfortunately, they don’t offer much of an explanation why it’s wrong and silly. And in fact, it is to be hoped has problems of its own, most notably the question of who exactly is doing the hoping?

The Associated Press Stylebook forbids it entirely, stating that hopefully should be used only as an adjective meaning “in a hopeful manner.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage doesn’t say hopefully is wrong but mentions the vehemence of its critics, saying “writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck.” There’s another wrinkle for news reporter, who aim for objectivity: Sentence adverbs can be considered a form of editorializing.

One common objection to hopefully at the beginning of a sentence is that it’s not clear whether it’s acting as a sentence adverb or as a simple adverb. But the potential for  ambiguity is a straw horse here and for many so-called rules that merely mask irrational preferences. It’s difficult to find any examples of ambiguous hopefullys in the wild, although I did contrive one: “Hopefully he waited by the telephone for her answer.”

But English speakers do not normally write or talk like that. (Poets are another matter.) Why blame hopefully when sentence structure can easily make the meaning clear? You can create similarly contrived examples of “ambiguity” for other sentence adverbs, too: “Sadly he waited for an answer that never came.” Was it sad that he was waiting, or did he do it sadly? The answer lies in rewriting the sentence, punctuating it properly with a comma after the sentence adverb. If you mean to say “I hope that…” or “With luck,” something will happen, then that’s what you should write instead of using the sentence adverb.

In his 2004  book Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English, James Cochrane says “It may be that hopefully’s crime has been to be a relatively recent newcomer to the ranks of sentence adverbs, but it is not all that clear that it deserves the condemnation it so often receives.”

Proponents of hopefully as a sentence adverb, such as Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of American Usage, point to the broad acceptance of other sentence adverbs, along with the fact that the usage dates back as far as the 1700s and was fairly well established in the 1930s. It wasn’t until it came into popular and widespread use in the 60s that the usage commentators began speaking out against it.

Amazingly, in some quarters, the opposition to the sentential hopefully appears to have grown stronger despite the lack of a compelling argument against it and increasing acceptance for it. For example, the entry for hopefully in 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses or Misuses (2004), the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary reported that 44 percent of their Usage Panel approved of hopefully as a sentence adverb when they were surveyed in 1969, but the approval rate shrank to 27 percent in 1986.

The editors add, “Perhaps it is not the use of sentence adverbs per se that bothers critics; rather, it seems that the specific use of hopefully in this way has become a shibboleth, a marker of poor education or a lack of refinement.” They note that it is “unacceptable to many critics, including a large majority of the Usage Panel,” but add that its widespread use “reflects popular recognition of its handiness; there is no precise substitute….” For example,

Someone who says ‘Hopefully the treaty will be ratified’ makes a hopeful prediction about the fate of the treaty, whereas someone who says ‘I hope the treaty is ratified’ expresses a bald statement about what is desired.

A subtle distinction, perhaps, but subtle distinctions give our language its power. Use hopefully if you like, with care. Avoid it if you don’t like it, but don’t sweep it out of copy you’re editing if it’s used clearly. Hopefully we can at last quit quibbling about it.

This article was originally printed in The Editorial Eye, 66 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314-5507, (703) 683-0683.

Copyright © 2006 Roy Jacobsen. All rights reserved. You can print ONE copy of this article for personal use. Other than that, you can’t reproduce this article by any means without written permission from the author.

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3 Responses to Hopefully, Wistful No More

  1. Daniel Meister says:

    Guess what? ‘Hopefully,’ also, does not specify who exactly is doing the hoping. Arrogantly, the writer assumes the attitude is generally shared, or else could have used ‘I hope.’ Aren’t ‘I hope,’ ‘she hopes,’ ‘they hope,’ ‘we hope,’ and ‘one hopes’ all more specific in meaning?’I hope the treaty will be ratified’ is indeed a bald clear statement. ‘Hopefully the treaty will be ratified’ is ambiguous, soft, and nonsense to some.William Strunk and E.B. White do clearly explain why they strenuously object. Read it again. It is classic debate technique to quote an opposing point, then dismiss it as having no explanation. It saves the work of dealing with the explanation. But you DID deal with their explanation, so there is no need to dismiss their objection as unfounded. No need to belittle anyone.I hope you’ll understand I’m not a hopefully-hater. But I do like strong points of debate with accurate support.

  2. Roy Jacobsen says:

    Daniel,Thanks for adding to the discussion. I like strong points of debate as well.Is it always necessary to explicitly state who exactly holds an opinion? For example, if I write, "Sadly, Paris Hilton continues to get more headlines than Darfur," that’s a subjective judgment on the comparative newsworthiness of those two stories. Do I need to say instead that I’m the one who thinks that situation is sad? I agree that at times, people can be arrogant in their opinions, but I don’t think that’s always the case when a writer uses a sentence adverb.Regarding Strunk and White, I’ve reread the passage about hopefully in it’s entirety, and they apparently did not even consider the possibility of it being used as a sentence adverb. To the best of my knowledge, the idea of sentence adverbs predates William Strunk’s very first edition of his little handbook, and I’m sure he and E.B. White were familiar with the use of similar sentence adverbs, such as sadly or fortunately. Perhaps I could have revised my article to say that Strunk and White don’t say what’s wrong with using hopefully as a sentence adverb. They’re forceful enough in their opinion, but I find that their substantiation is, well, insubstantial.

  3. J says:

    One (bad) reason people still get upset."Hopefully" differs from most other sentence adverbs in that when you write it out as a clause you have to use a past participle than a simple adjective. To take your examples: AMAZINGLY — it is AMAZING that; STRANGELY — it is STRANGE that; FORTUNATELY — it is FORTUNATE that. For "hopefully" to be analogous to these, you would have to write, "it is HOPEFUL that"; but instead we chop off the FUL and make it "hoped." Ignorant sticklers think this is wrong; they see the HOPE and they see the FUL and by their amazing powers of reasoning they decide that "hopefully" can only mean "full of hope." They commit what any linguist or anybody who’s breezed through a few articles by linguists will tell you is called the "etymological fallacy": words don’t mean what they used to mean, and you can’t figure out what a word means just by looking at it. As you noted, people have been using "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped" since the 18th century; by any standard, the usage is legitimate.

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