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Writers Talk About Writing

It Is to Be Hoped That You'll Agree

Last month, The AP Stylebook, the style guide for many American newspapers, finally gave up on restricting hopefully to its original meaning, "in a hopeful manner." The stylebook now also allows hopefully to be as a sentence adverb meaning "it is hoped" or "it is to be hoped that."

The AP wasn't the only language commentator to warn against using hopefully in this modern sense. Many dictionaries, usage manuals, style guides, and writing experts have said to stay away from using hopefully as a sentence adverb "in careful writing." When the AP made its announcement at the annual American Copy Editors Society's conference, the audience audibly gasped.

Why has there been such a strong backlash against hopefully as a sentence adverb?


The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the modern hopefully in 1932 in the venerable New York Times:

He would create an expert commission to consist of ex-Presidents and a selected list of ex-Governors, hopefully not including Pa and Ma Ferguson. —New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1932

This usage is dated to 1932 by other resources, including the Online Etymology Dictionary, which notes that hopefully replaces the "admittedly awkward 'it is to be hoped that.'" What writer wouldn't want to say in one word what otherwise must be said passively in six?

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that although the sentence adverb usage has been around since 1932, it didn't become popular in print until the early 1960s. Critics shortly began speaking out against it. "Careful Writer" Theodore Bernstein seems to have been the first, in his 1962 More Language That Needs Watching, and other notable language commentators quickly followed.

But It's Not a Word

Bernstein's chief complaint against the sentence adverb is that it is a solecism. Comparing hopefully to fortunately or luckily in The Careful Writer, he makes the case that hopefully doesn't mean "it is hoped that" so it can't be used as a sentence adverb.

The problem with Bernstein's argument is that by the time of More Language That Needs Watching, hopefully had been used to mean "it is hoped that" for 30 years. Although it's not the 300-plus years of the "in a hopeful manner" meaning, how long does a word have to be used before it can be declared acceptable?

The trouble is that the "it's not a word" crowd think meanings have to be ordained by some sort of literary royalty. They don't. Words and their meanings travel from the bottom up: ordinary people using a word repeatedly with a consistent meaning. As long as everyone who uses the word agrees on the meaning, the meaning is acceptable. The more the word is used, the more it spreads into more formal language. Soon the word reaches that upper echelon, language traditionalists. Traditionalists are generally the last to know when a word has gained acceptance by the language community.

Sentence Adverbs

Some traditionalists' argument against our modern hopefully is part of a larger argument against sentence adverbs, according to Oxford Dictionaries. Yet we've been using sentence adverbs since the 1600s. Are they really ungrammatical?

No, they're not. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English calls them adverbials that can be "restated as to-clauses or that-clauses with adjectives describing attitude." In sentences such as "Hopefully this problem will be solved when the group is thoroughly revised," hopefully "might be glossed as 'I am hopeful that.'" Longman notes this hopefully occurs in formal writing as well as conversational and fiction writing.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language states that sentence modifiers can be positioned in the front, center, or end of the sentence. If they're modifying the entire clause, they are more likely to be at the front or end of the sentence, where we usually find our hopefully.

Language Users Haven't Listened

Despite dire warnings against its use, people continue to use hopefully as a sentence adverb in speech and print. They ignore the traditionalists and do what they want. Since the 1980s, several commentators have come to accept the sentence adverb, including Bernstein. Garner's Modern American Usage, a generally conservative language resource loathe to language changes, declares, "The battle is now over. Hopefully is now a part of [American English]."

Hopefully as a sentence adverb is fine: It's grammatical. It has a shared meaning. And it says in one word what otherwise takes six in a passive construction.

Hopefully, you agree.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 9th 2012, 5:14 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Two points. One is that Garner's statement "The battle is now over. Hopefully is now a part of [American English]" reflects a slight disingenuousness on his part as to what it means that a word is part of English. What he _really_ means is that "the battle [to try to suppress a widespread use of sentence-qualifying 'hopefully'] is over and [I now give up and personally have come to agree with the vast majority of speakers that] 'hopefully' is now part of American English." So, just a little clarification there. As you point out, sentence-qualifying 'hopefully' has been a part of American English for 60+ years. What's changed is who accepts this usage.

Point two is that in your final sentence, the comma following the "introductory adverbial phrase" looks odd to me. Are you using the comma to avoid possible ambiguity that would have us agreeing in a hopeful manner? :-)
Wednesday May 9th 2012, 7:57 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
All VT column writers are talking about the word "Hopefully."
I use the word regularly in my emails and applications but never thought or realised so many arguments associated with its uses. Thank you for the presentation and "it is to be hoped that" more similar types of hope creating words be surfaced soon.
Wednesday May 9th 2012, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments, Mike and begum. Mike, I think I used that last comma because I heard a pause in my head. But I think the sentence works just as well without it. :-)
Wednesday May 9th 2012, 1:30 PM
Comment by: mac
a word needs no imprimatur nor blessing; clarity only. i say it, you get it. you say it, i may not always get it but i don't always get things. when i do, we have clarity and viola! a word. wait! someone's been pulling strings. i mean voila!

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