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Hopefully

It used to be wrong to start a sentence with "hopefully," but times have changed.

By
Mignon Fogarty
hopefully

What’s the Trouble with 'Hopefully'?

For centuries, the word “hopefully” meant “in a hopeful manner.” For example, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his essay “El Dorado,” “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” meaning that enjoying the journey, traveling with a hopeful disposition, is better than getting to your destination.

“Hopefully” plays the role of an adverb in that sentence. It’s modifying the verb “travel” the same way adverbs like “quickly” or “frugally” would. You could travel quickly, travel frugally, or travel hopefully. Traveling hopefully sounds like more fun.

But words can take on new uses over time, and in the 1960s, people started using “hopefully” to mean “I hope” or “we hope,” as in “Hopefully, we’ll get to go on vacation this year.” It became trendy.

Sentence Adverbs

In that sentence, “hopefully” is playing the role of sentence adverb. “Hopefully” means “I am hopeful that we’ll get to go on vacation this year.” In that kind of sentence, “hopefully’ is just like the sentence adverbs  “thankfully,” “mercifully,” and “fortunately.” You see, adverbs modify verbs, but they can also modify other adverbs or, as they do in this case, whole sentences. “Hopefully, we’ll get to go on a vacation this year,” is just like “Thankfully, we’ll get to go on a vacation this year,” and “Fortunately, we’ll get to go on a vacation this year.”

The weight of opinion accepts the modified definition of 'hopefully.'

The American Heritage Dictionary has useful entries called “usage notes” that tell you when a word is controversial, and they note that people are illogical in their objection to “hopefully” being used as a sentence adverb. They do usage surveys, and they find that people aren’t bothered by sentence adverbs in general—very few people object to “mercifully” being used as a sentence adverb, for example—people object only to “hopefully” being a sentence adverb. It seems to be special, in a bad way, and the only explanation American Heritage can muster is that people didn’t like “hopefully” at first because it was trendy, and then even after the trendiness wore off and “hopefully” became ubiquitous in everyday speech (which it is), language sticklers held on to their objection as more of marker of who knows how to use English than for any logical reason.

David Minthorn, the former deputy standards editor for the AP Stylebook said he was surprised at the attention they received a few years ago when they decided to change the “hopefully” entry and say it was fine to use it at the beginning of a sentence as a sentence adverb to mean “I’m hopeful that something will happen.” They were prepared for the attention they got from past changes such as dropping the hyphen from “e-mail,” but he said, “We didn’t anticipate the amount of interest that change [of “hopefully”] generated. But we’re pleased that people who care about words and usage are commenting about it.”

Context Can Make 'Hopefully' OK to Use at the Beginning of a Sentence

There is one problem with “hopefully” as a sentence adverb though. Occasionally, it can be ambiguous. For example, what does this sentence mean?

Hopefully, Squiggly asked dad if we can go to Disneyland.

It could mean the writer is hopeful that Squiggly asked, or it could mean that Squiggly asked in a hopeful manner.

In practice though, this problem doesn’t come up a lot. Usually, context makes the meaning clear, and if there is an instance where intolerable confusion will ensue, just don't use “hopefully.” There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. In most cases, the meaning is clear, especially when the sentence isn't about a person:

Hopefully, the expedition will be approved.

Nobody is going to think the expedition is hopeful.

Hopefully, it won't snow.

Nobody is going to think the weather is hopeful.

Even when there is a human (or mammalian) subject, context usually makes the meaning clear:

We don't have chips to go with the salsa? Hopefully, Aardvark is getting chips on his way home.

Everyone knows that the writer is hopeful Aardvark will show up with chips.

You’re obviously not required to use “hopefully” in this way, and I do still occasionally hear from people who object such use. Still, most current sources now say it’s fine or at least grudgingly accept it. For example, in a previous edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Garner called fighting this use of “hopefully” a “lost cause,” and in the most recent edition, he now says the battle is lost and that the new meaning of “hopefully” is now part of American English, and the word has “all but lost its traditional meaning.” 

I feel confident predicting that in 20 or 30 years, people will be surprised to learn that it was ever controversial to use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb and will think we were quite silly for getting all worked up about it. Depending on how you feel about “hopefully,” you can take comfort in that prediction, or gnash your teeth.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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