Etymology Usage

Frankly, my dear, we like “hopefully”

Q: In a recent blog post, you wrote: “Interestingly, there may be a connection here (however, tenuous) with the verb ‘schmooze.’ ” The word “interestingly” could be replaced by “happily,” “sadly,” “frankly,” etc., and no one would complain. But if it were replaced by “hopefully,” hackles would be raised. I’m interested in your thoughts.

A: The adverb “hopefully” has been hotly debated among usage authorities for the last 50 years or so. We devoted a section of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious, to the subject.

There are two schools of thought here:

The first school believes that “hopefully” should modify only a specific verb, and that it should have the meaning “in a hopeful manner.” (Example: “He prayed hopefully for rain.”)

The second believes that “hopefully” can modify an entire sentence, and that it can have the meaning “it is to be hoped that.” (Example: “Hopefully it will rain.”)

We’re in the second camp. If you don’t mind our cribbing from our own book, here are a few passages from Origins of the Specious:

“It’s hopeless to resist the evolution of ‘hopefully.’

“Usage experts used to insist, and many traditionalists still do, that there’s only one correct way to use ‘hopefully’—as an adverb meaning ‘in a hopeful manner.’ (‘Did my horse win?’ Nathan asked hopefully.’) It’s a hanging offense, the sticklers say, to use it to mean ‘it is hoped’ or ‘let us hope.’ (‘Hopefully he won,’ Nathan said.) The word ‘hopefully,’ the argument goes, should modify a verb, not a whole sentence.

“Oh yeah? Writers have been using adverbs to modify entire sentences for hundreds of years. In fact, the first complete English translation of the Bible, the Wycliffe version of about 1382, uses ‘plainly’ (it was spelled ‘pleynly’ then) as a sentence adverb. Here’s the passage in modern English: ‘Plainly this is my infirmity, and I shall bear it.’

“Many other adverbs have been used in the same way by respected writers. Jane Austen in Mansfield Park (1814): ‘Luckily the strength of the piece did not depend upon him.’ Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution (1837): ‘Happily human brains have such a talent of taking up simply what they can carry, and ignoring all the rest.’ Charles Darwin in an 1847 letter: ‘Oddly, I was never at all staggered by this theory until now, having read Mr. Milne’s argument against it.’ Virginia Woolf in a 1939 diary entry: ‘Mercifully we have 50 miles of felt between ourselves and the den.’

“Words like ‘plainly,’ ‘luckily,’ ‘happily,’ ‘oddly,’ ‘curiously,’ ‘surely,’ ‘strictly,’ ‘seriously,’ ‘certainly,’ and more have been used as sentence adverbs for centuries without upsetting anybody. Yet, remarkably, people seem to have drawn the line at ‘hopefully.’ Why? Logically, there’s no good reason. But the answer may lie in the relative newness of its appearance as a sentence adverb.”

As we go on to say in Origins, the usage was apparently introduced in 1932 by the New York Times Book Review, and nobody seemed to mind at the time. “Hopefully” appeared from time to time as a sentence adverb over the next thirty years without exciting much notice.

Then in the early 1960s, we write, the usage suddenly took off and started appearing everywhere:

“There’s something about a new usage—especially a popular one—that makes sticklers cranky, and ‘hopefully’ really cranked them up. All hell broke loose in 1965, when the Saturday Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Times denounced this terrible new menace. (The Times had no doubt forgotten the word’s parentage.) Thus began what the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield has called ‘one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20th century.’

“On one side were the traditionalists who condemned the practice. On the other side were nearly all the people who actually used the language. Over the years, most usage manuals and style guides have come to believe that it’s illogical to condemn the use of ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb, but they still warn writers against the practice because of all the naysayers out there.”

We conclude that “ ‘hopefully’ has long since earned its right to be a sentence adverb. It’s so widely accepted because no other word does the job quite as well.”

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