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Hopefully or full of hope?

By Anne Curzan
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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.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.

COMMENTS

  • Jeffrey Klink - 1972

    Professor Curzan, thanks for plowing a small but interesting furrow in the restless English language. Hopefully the digital age will not do our tongue lasting damage but in some unexpected ways only enrich it. All the best.

    Reply

  • Roger Horn - 1961

    This reminds me, as so many similar things do, of that beautiful trio in Ruddigore “And it really doesn’t matter,matter,matter…”

    Reply

  • Julian Weitzenfeld

    There really is a difference between describing what people do and what they ought to do. The primary concern for a language user is making the language easier to understand. As an editor, I spent a lot of time eliminating unintentional ambiguities, of which “Hopefully, she opened the gift” is a prime example. Why wouldn’t you eliminate it? Where’s the enrichment?

    Reply

  • B Marshall - 1995

    I think the term I learned for that in a graduate grammar class at U-M was “adverbial.” Because a word like “hopefully” wasn’t modifying any word in the sentence, “adverbial” distinguished its meaning from “adverb” much the same way we classify participles, gerunds, and infinitives as “verbals” to distinguish them from verbs.

    Reply

  • Diane Lavos - B.A. 1967

    Dictionaries are full of words which include dated and archaic meanings and useage along with current usage. In the natural progression of speech and communication, some terms come in and some go out. It is not ambiguous to me to hear, “Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified.” I, the speaker, hope it happens. If the participants in the treaty hope it will ratified, that’s fine–we’ll assume they are. But it is clear to me, it’s about my (the speaker’s) view.

    Reply

  • James Polichak - 2003

    Languages are not coherent entities, but amorphous conglomerations, through time and space, of millions of idiolects, and no one shares the same mental representation for any word as anyone else.

    Those who claim there is a “proper” way to use language always have an agenda. All to frequently that agenda is to reinforce the existing socioeconomic power structure and to suppress racial, ethnic, gender, and politico-philosophical minorities.

    It should be no surprise much of the innovation and creativity of language comes from those minorities whose conformity is demanded by those who hold the reins of power.

    The English language has thrived through its adaptability and eagerness to absorb new words, new concepts, and shifting senses through exploration of geographical, chronological, epistemological, and phenomenological spaces.

    Let us remember the thoughts upon claims to lasting authority by a short-lived star-

    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Now you may commence discussion upon how the ‘i’ should be pronounced in “short-lived”.

    Reply

  • Michael Ritenour - 1977

    I see the criticism of the adverbial usage of hopefully and other such words as serving the useful purpose of encouraging the individual to recognize that the usage is evolving. Better to make a conscious, intentional decision to adopt a particular usage, right or “wrong”, than to allow one’s speech to evolve out of simple slovenliness or slavish devotion to trends.

    Reply

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