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Q From Grahame Gould: You mentioned in your piece on irregardless that there was some controversy surrounding hopefully. After a search I noticed that you mentioned it again in reviewing two dictionaries, but you also used it yourself in other articles (so I’ll happily continue to use it). My curiosity has now been whetted, but not sated. Perhaps you could prepare a summary of the pros and cons for your site?

A I’ll do more than that, because your query provides a peg on which to hang as complete a discussion of the whole issue as would seem to be required.

There are few issues of usage that are as contentious as the matter of hopefully; almost every modern style guide contains a paragraph warning of the objections of conservative grammarians to it. The objection is not to the word itself: it has been used for centuries in the sense of “In a hopeful manner; with a feeling of hope” (the Oxford English Dictionary records its first use from 1639) and there’s nothing controversial in employing it like this, for example in the proverb “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive”. What has alarmed and annoyed language purists is its comparatively modern appearance in the sense of “it is to be hoped that”, as in “Hopefully, we’ll win the contract”, or “Hopefully, it won’t rain on the parade”.

The objection is not only to hopefully, though that word has suffered more than most, but to the twentieth-century fashion for a set of such words — which grammarians often call sentence adverbs — in which the word refers not just to one part of a sentence but to the whole construction. Such adverbs are usually (but not by any means always) the first word in the sentence, and are often marked off with a comma from what follows. There are perhaps a dozen or so that people use in this way, including frankly (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”), strictly (“Strictly, one ought not to use this construction”), thankfully (“Thankfully, the surfboard missed his head”), and actually (“Actually, I don’t really like taramasalata”). In grammatical terms, they’re elliptical forms that abbreviate a comment into a single word. As we’ve seen, hopefully is short for “it is to be hoped that”, thankfully can be rephrased as “by good fortune”, or “as luck would have it”, frankly as “to speak frankly”, and so on. It’s the compactness of these forms that’s their attraction, one that seems to fit our hurried modern lifestyle.

Though sentence adverbs came into the language in earnest in the twentieth century, it’s possible to find older examples. Fielding employed luckily in Tom Jones in 1749: “Luckily, he had fallen into more merciful hands”. Charles Darwin wrote in a letter in 1847, “Oddly, I was never at all staggered by this theory until now”. Jane Austen also used luckily, in Mansfield Park in 1814: “Luckily the strength of the piece did not depend upon him”. Virginia Woolf turned mercifully into a sentence adverb in To the Lighthouse (1927): “Mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava”.

The dispute is comparatively recent. Even the Second Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage of 1965 has no entry for sentence adverbs, let alone hopefully. In the USA, the tirade against it began around that date, reached a peak in the 1970s, and has substantially subsided since. In Britain, the fuss started rather later, and since the form was originally American, was also tinged with distrust of it as an upstart Americanism. The objection to it in the USA seem in part to have been based on a mistaken idea that it was a German term, hoffentlich, that had been transferred into English, so that arguments against it in the US were at times as chauvinistic as some of the later ones in Britain.

In its favour, hopefully conforms to a type of construction that is far from new, is a useful condensation of an idea that would otherwise require a wordy circumlocution, and is widely used. It is hard to provide much in the way of a list of objections save that it has become a shibboleth of correctness among conservative grammarians and stylists, which requires today’s writer, even forty years after the great witch hunt began, to be a little circumspect in bringing it into action. As always with any sort of writing, you need to consider your audience. For myself, as you have noticed, I use it when it seems appropriate, untroubled by any potential strictures. That’s because I have a stack of modern style guides ranged at my back, chorusing that it is standard English and that it is both acceptable and accepted.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 May 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 24 May 2003.