Daily Archives: March 4, 2010


Ah! You see this word, controversial in the past century, and look hopefully. Will the dispute that has brought such despair to an ostensibly bright-eyed word be resolved, or at least addressed enlighteningly? I write this note hopefully; hopefully, it will sort out some key points. The word and its uses will be fully examined, and, I hope, fully tasted.

Let us start with a morphological decomposition: hope+ful+ly.

The ly comes from a Germanic root meaning “appearance, form” that is also the root of like (all forms of the word like are related and have this origin). In this case it makes the word an adverb, but there is an identical and cognate suffix that makes adjectives: kingly, early, leisurely, etc.

The ful is just full written with one l instead of two. And the hope is, of course, hope. Both hope and full come from Germanic roots and have always meant what they mean now (though their forms have modified over time – full is cognate with forms throughout the Indo-European languages, all having a labial and a liquid, as in plenum in Latin and plérés and pléthos in Greek).

So this word is, like, full of hope! It was assembled in stages, historically: though its parts date back into the mists of time, hopeful is first cited by the Oxford English Dictionary from 1594 (in Shakespeare’s Richard III, not the most hopeful play in the canon), and hopefully from 1639.

Say it now, slowly: hope – your mouth is in a shape to swallow something, a gulp of liquid perhaps; you sure hope it’s good! – ful – now your mouth is full with your tongue, as it arches like a stretching cat, tip and tail high – ly – the tongue is now pressing its mid part forward and up, as the tip and tail drop back. The motion your tongue makes is a little reminiscent of the sun salutation, a common yoga routine. Ah, greet the morning hopefully! Hopefully it will be a nice day.

But there it is: the bitter twinge, the fly in the ointment. Can you say hopefully like that, setting the tone of a sentence without modifying the main verb? Ignoring for a moment how long people have been doing so, isn’t it illogical?

Ah, logic, logic, logic. In the sciences, you see how something works, and you make a hypothesis. If it is further confirmed, it is a theory. But if you find data that contradict your theory, you need to revise or discard it; it’s considered rather bad form to simply declare the data wrong. Not that it’s never been done, but when it’s done it doesn’t generally last. Biologists refused to believe that a platypus could lay eggs and yet be a mammal. It simply didn’t fit within their tidy taxonomies. It really was a hopeless case. But in the end the physical fact was indisputable.

But in language, because we do have the opportunity to influence its use, and it is a form of behaviour susceptible to having “correct” and “incorrect” forms, platypus denial can persist for a long, long time. Failure to analyze grammatical functions correctly is presented not as a defect, which it is, but as a virtue: you have logic on your side, so all those people who are saying things in a way that does not match your analysis must be wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, garbage in, garbage out: if your assumptions are wrong or your logic is incomplete, your conclusions will be rubbish.

And the usage always comes first. Natural languages are not constructed; they arise spontaneously and are analyzed after the fact. They can be influenced, but one does well to consider what sort of influence to exert and why. That’s the pragmatic side of the question – does a given usage enhance or detract from the expressive potential of the language? Well, let us examine the one at hand. Frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about. But, sadly, there is a fuss, so, clearly, I need to address it.

The “logical” analysis that leads to rejection goes as follows: “Hopefully is an adverb meaning ‘with hope,’ so it must apply to the verb. If you say ‘Hopefully, I am going,’ it means ‘I am going hopefully.’ To use it otherwise is wrong.” The problem is that it is used that way, is used that way clearly and effectively, and thereby adds to the expressive potential of English. But that’s not the only problem with that analysis.

You see, the contested use of hopefully is as a sentence adverb, i.e., an adverb that sets the mood for a sentence, and it’s far from being the only word we use in that way. It’s an established and well-understood usage. If I say “frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about,” it’s not the seeing that’s frank; if I say “sadly, there is a fuss, so, clearly, I need to address it,” I’m not saying that the fuss occurs sadly or that the address is what will be clear – although I hope the address is reasonably clear.

Seriously, sentence adverbs have been around at least since the 17th century – “seriously” was used as one in 1644. The animus towards them has only been around since the 20th century, and only really caught on in the 1960s, and has been focused mostly on hopefully, which is a bit of a latecomer to the sentence adverb game, showing up in the early 20th century – but well before many usages that are now commonly accepted.

So, really, why should there be any question about it? It’s obviously a perfectly viable usage. And I certainly do hope that the eyes of the grammaticasters will open fully; if they can learn to like it, I will be full of hope for the language.


Do life and work in late winter seem especially sluggish? As though, if life were an orchestra, you were not the concertmaster or even the oboe but merely the second timpanist, stuck back in the corner beating dull drums slowly? This incessant tedium… it’s enough to make one throw a tantrum if one weren’t so listless. It’s like being a sailor on a becalmed boat.

Or, more to the point, being a sailor on a becalmed boat is like it. You know how we tend to get words for internal states – mental and emotional dispositions – from words for concrete physical things? Well, guess what. Here’s one that goes the other way. Doldrums referred first to mental dullness, drowsiness, and depression; it was later transferred to the areas of the ocean where one could be becalmed (and thus in the doldrums as far as mood and activity went, too).

Doldrum comes in turn from dull plus an ending imitative of tantrum (a kind of deliberate opposite formation, like craptacular formed from spectacular). And guess what about dull (drum roll, please)… It’s also a word that referred to mental state first and then later to physical nature! Yes, that’s right; it comes from and old Germanic root meaning “foolish” or “stupid”. From there it extended to sluggish spirits and blunted moods. And only from there, and a half a millennium after the first instance we have recorded of it in English (but still before Shakespeare), do we see it used to refer to knives, light, etc.

So doldrums, with its echo of ho-hum, really is a perfect word for the late winter blues, when the superintendent of your spirits is become slumlord, and perhaps, like a bored and stagnating sailor, you get into the rums and just plop upside-down (plop upside-down? dold… just lie on your back in your state of stupefaction and look at it).

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting doldrums.