Are you feeling hopeful?

Mignon Fogarty,
April 26, 2012
Episode #319


This week I have hot grammar news! The Associated Press has announced that their writers can now start a sentence with the word “hopefully” to mean “I am hopeful that something will happen,” or “I am hopeful that the next part of the sentence is true.” As in “Hopefully, you understand what a big deal this change is.”

What’s the Trouble with “Hopefully”?

Let’s start with some background on “hopefully.” For centuries, “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 a 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 a 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 point out 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 a sentence adverb, for example—people only object 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 Deputy Standards Editor for the AP Stylebook said he was surprised at the attention the change about “hopefully” has received. They were prepared for the attention past changes such as dropping the hyphen from “e-mail” generated, 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.

New and Old Support for "Hopefully"

I don’t consider myself a leader when it comes to language change. I tell you what the safe choices are while also trying to let you know when something is OK in informal English or seems to be making ground into Standard English. I almost always defer to the style guides, so in the past articles, I’ve told you that even though I think using “hopefully” as a sentence adverb is logical and should be allowed, I can’t recommend that you do it.

Now, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that if you write for the Associated Press or follow AP style, you’re allowed to use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. Finally!

You’re still not required to do it, and you should know that doing it is still likely to annoy some readers, but if you want to use “hopefully” in this way, you can cite the Associated Press Stylebook for support.

In the past, I noted that Garner’s Modern American Usage called fighting this use of “hopefully” a lost cause, and Minthorn also points out that the Associated Press isn’t the first reference book to sanction the modern use.

Why Do Stylebooks Make Changes?

You might be wondering how decisions about these changes get made, so I asked Minthorn to give me some insight on why they decided to change their “hopefully” entry this year. He said, “‘Hopefully’ as an introductory adverb has come up several times at Ask the Editor, the online AP Stylebook’s Q-and-A site ... In a 2010 exchange, I noted the Stylebook’s preference for the traditional meaning (in a hopeful manner), but also that Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (our main reference), allows the modern usage.” Then Minthorn noted that one of my favorite language bloggers, John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun and the former president of the American Copy Editors Association raised the question again last month, so they took another look. Way to go, John!

Minthorn said, “The Stylebook’s other references—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Concise Oxford English Dictionary—also sanction the modern usage, which has become ubiquitous in American speech and writing, including in news stories. The Stylebook editors ... agreed to update the entry to allow both meanings.”

“There has been considerable feedback pro and con in the social media, and several newspapers and Web publications have written about the change with some fervor. On balance, it appears that the weight of opinion accepts the modified definition of hopefully, based on common usage and dictionary definitions allowing it. The traditional usage of hopefully still has vocal advocates. However, we’re on solid ground also allowing the modern usage in AP newswriting."

Still, I know from the messages I get that many of you disagree, and this is a battle that isn't going to go away anytime soon, but the Associated Press change is just another important step in the inevitable full and unclouded entry of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb into Standard English.

I feel confident predicting that in 20 or 30 years, people will be surprised to learn that it was ever controversial and 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.

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