Why doesn’t the Microsoft Word grammar checker like it when we use hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, as in, “Hopefully, there won’t be budget cuts this year.”
Etymologically, hopefully comes from ‘full of hope’, as in, “She opened the package hopefully.” But this isn’t now how most of us use the word hopefully.
When we say, “Hopefully, she opened the package,” we typically mean, “I hope she opened it”—we’re not talking about how she opened it, full of hope.
Linguists call adverbs used this way “sentence adverbs.” They’re adverbs that modify the sentence or how the speaker feels about the sentence, and we have a good number of them in English. Take, for instance, frankly or bluntly: these adverbs express how I, as a speaker, feel about what I’m saying. Or, consider the sentence adverb mercifully, which describes how I feel—or how many people feel, or how I think many people may feel (it is ambiguous)—about the proposition that I’m forwarding (e.g., “Mercifully, the budget cuts will be limited”).
Hopefully is now doing the same thing, but usage guides tell us that we shouldn’t do that, that it’s ambiguous. After all, who’s hoping?
Hopefully started to be used as a sentence adverb in the 1930s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It gained in popularity over the next three decades, and in the 1960s, it caught the attention of usage guide writers, at which point prescriptive criticism of sentence adverb hopefully took hold.
Interestingly (just to use a sentence adverb!), criticism seems to have gotten stronger, not weaker, over the second half of the 20th century—even as usage of the sentence adverb becomes ever more widespread. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th edition, 2011) reports that in 1968, 44 percent of the Usage Panel approved this new use of hopefully as a sentence adverb. In 1999, only 34 percent of the Usage Panel approved the usage (the example sentence on the survey was “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified”).
Now, why is it okay to use mercifully and not okay to use hopefully as a sentence adverb? That’s a very fair question, and it highlights the ways in which usage guides can latch onto one form as incorrect and a very similar form as not being incorrect.
So I would say that each of us, when the Microsoft Word grammar checker underlines our hopefully, has the right to make a decision—to decide, do I mean “I hope that,” or does hopefully better capture what I mean to say?
What do you think? Do you use hopefully “properly,” or as a sentence adverb? Does it matter? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
This video originally appeared in LSA Today.