Hopefully taking a crack at hopefully

Hopefully, Oliver Twist asks for more.

That, in a nutshell, is “hopefully” being used correctly: when it refers to the hopeful mind-frame of the subject of the sentence – and not of the writer (or of a wider assumed consensus). The last thing any of us  – including, presumably, Dickens – would have hoped was that Oliver should step forward and make that legendary request. And yet it’s correct to say that “hopefully, he asks for more”.

As Mark Davidson explains in his book Right, Wrong, and Risky, “the adverb hopefully is risk-free if you use it to modify a verb or an adjective, and thus to mean “in a hopeful manner”.” He goes on to quote an example from the New York Times: “In anticipation of China’s 2008 Olympic bid, the city [of Beijing] is fervently and hopefully preparing for the event.”

However, the word is often used colloquially as a sentence modifier, rather than as an adverb, with the implied meaning “it is to be hoped that”. Compare it with the sentence modifier “fortunately”, implying that anyone writing or reading the sentence recognizes that “it is fortunate that” whatever follows does indeed follow. But the word is “hope-FUL-ly” – not “hope-ly”, or “hope-ably”. It makes no sense to say “it is hopeful that” – since someone has to be doing the hoping in order for it to be hopeful and full of hope.

Strunk and White go far in their damnation of the word ‘hopefully’ used as a sentence modifier. “Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, ‘Hopefully I’ll leave on the noon plane’ is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you’ll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind?  … Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.”

Hopefully I’ll never find myself making a word choice that would have offended Messrs Strunk and White.


3 thoughts on “Hopefully taking a crack at hopefully

  1. Brian Barder

    Hopefully, Burchfield in his magisterial third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage has definitively killed off the illogical objection to ‘hopefully’ as a sentence modifier. Sadly, some misguided pedants continue to object to it. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with it. Happily, it has entered the language and will stay there. Regrettably, some people will never accept that their pet prejudices have been misconceived all along. Certainly we should welcome a dose of common sense..

    Sincerely, affectionately and provocatively

    1. Jeremy Stone

      Burchfield may have killed off “the illogical objection” to ‘hopefully’ as a sentence modifier. But precisely which objection is that? He hasn’t laid a glove on the validity of the logical objections so forcefully put by Strunk and White.

  2. judith schaaf

    Thank you! It’s a relief to be able to use “hopefully” without the little tinge of worry
    that someone will judge me for it. I didn’t realize the pedants were misguided!

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