Tag Archives: hopefully

Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.


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.

When an “error” isn’t

This is the text of a presentation I made to the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, Sept. 24, 2007. Certain parts were sung; you can guess which.

It ain’t necessarily so, no,
it ain’t necessarily so,
the things Strunk and White
want to tell you are right,
it just ain’t necessarily so.

Getting pissed off about grammatical errors is a favourite activity of a surprisingly large portion of English speakers. Continue reading