Prescriptivist’s Corner: Hopefully

One of the more common prescriptivist admonitions concerns the adverb hopefully. Prescriptivist mavens tell us that the word should only be used in the sense of in a hopeful manner, and not in the sense of it is to be hoped. So if we say, “Hopefully, Vinnie will give us good odds on the horse,” we mean that Vinnie is very confident the horse will lose, not that the speaker is optimistic about his chances for Vinnie being generous.

There are two problems with this strict interpretation of the meaning of hopefully. The first is that it is contrary to general usage. And the second is that it makes no sense grammatically.

People use hopefully all the time to mean it is to be hoped. “Hopefully, it will be sunny for the wedding” and “hopefully, Vinnie will let me skip a payment” are common formulations. It is true that this is a relatively recent usage, but it is one that has caught on like wildfire, especially in American speech. The Oxford English Dictionary only records this sense of the word from 1932.

But the underlying grammatical tradition is much older. The optimistic use of hopefully is as a sentence adverb. There are two distinct types of adverbs. A verb phrase adverb modifies the verb, as in “promptly pay Vinnie the money you owe him.” Promptly indicates the speed with which the money should be paid. A sentence adverb describes the attitude of the speaker, as in “seriously, you should not defer payment to Vinnie.” Seriously does not modify the verb defer, it reinforces the tone the speaker wishes to impart in the complete sentence.

Sentence adverbs have a long and distinguished history in English. Briefly dates to 1514 and was used by Shakespeare; seriously is from 1644; strictly, 1680; roughly, 1841; frankly, 1847; and honestly, 1898. Why should hopefully be any different just because it is a bit newer?

Some ardent prescriptivists retort that sentence adverbs like curiously can be converted into adjectival phrases with the form of “it is _____ that” with little or no change in meaning. So, the sentence “Curiously, Vinnie didn’t ask for payment” can be rendered as “it is curious that Vinnie didn’t ask for payment.

But, this only works for some sentence adverbs. “Frankly, you should pay Vinnie before he breaks your legs” cannot be rendered as “It is frank that, you should pay…”

There are a few cases, however, where the two meanings of hopefully can be confused, and here the ardent prescriptivists have a point. When someone says, “hopefully, the quarterback will hand the ball off to Jones,” there is no way to know exactly what is meant. Is Jones a reliable man who will get the first down? Or does he have a history of fumbling and handing the ball off to him is an act of faith? Where such confusion can occur, it is probably best to avoid using the word.

But in most cases, there is no possibility of confusion. When we say, “Hopefully, Vinnie will let me skip a payment” there is no doubt about meaning and our optimistic, if perhaps naïve, attitude.

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