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Veterans of the War on Hopefully

Over at Grammarphobia—you do check out Grammarphobia regularly, don’t you?—Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman take on once more what R.W. Burchfield called “one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20th century”: the dispute over hopefully as a sentence adverb.

In this post they quote what they wrote in Origin of the Specious, so please allow me to repeat myself: Many people believe that hopefully, as an adverb of human emotion, can only be used in the sense of “in a hopeful manner” and not in the sense “it is to be hoped,” modifying an entire clause. Sadly, they are mistaken.

Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman cite a use of hopefully in the latter sense in The New York Times in 1932, and no furor about the usage was raised until the mid-1960s. I don’t know what class of despised wretches—teenagers, advertising executives, business consultants—brought the usage into vogue, but you can depend on it that the peevers identified the usage with some class of people over whom they could demonstrate their imagined superiority.

If memory serves, the taboo made it into the current edition of The Elements of Style and is now among the unhelpful strictures inflicted on the impressionable young by instructors who should know better.*

Let us be clear. We use sentence adverbs all the time. The prejudice against hopefully goes against both logic and established usage.

And yet style manuals that know this encourage writers to avoid hopefully in this sense for fear of stirring up the objections of the uninformed. I call this cowardice. It is like uttering mealy-mouthed equivocations about evolution because there are people who believe, against all evidence, that the planet is a little over six thousand years old. It is like catering to the no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences crowd or mechanically following the Associated Press Stylebook’s asinine no-split-verbs rule.

Enough truckling, I say. There are real errors to avoid and inane vogue usages to shun. Don’t waste your time honoring superstitions. Just go ahead. Hopefully, over time you will prevail. Happily, you certainly will.



*I keep a copy of the 1959 edition of The Elements of Style, acquired in high school, on my shelves for purely sentimental reasons. A copy of a later edition came into my hands and was speedily discarded.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:40 AM | | Comments (8)


I hit on "hopefully" in a recent essay on Strunk and White and related issues:

Strunk & Cowan is my attempt to serve poor Will Strunk better than E.B. White did; it's founded on Strunk's original, but updated using MWCDEU.

My ears pricked at this exchange I heard on my local NPR affiliate this morning. It was a story about the gunfire at an LA high school.

Mom: Hopefully, this will never happen again.
Daughter: Me too.

We all know what she meant, but it was really jarring pre-coffee...

JC: thumbing through Strunk and Cowan, as one does, I was moved (by the remnants of my editorial past) to drop this line to say that Bridgewater (section II part 3) should be Bridgwater. You may call me Picky if you like.

One hopes we won't have to go through this again.

You might have Edwin Newman to blame for the war on hopefully.

. . . and yet the obituary ends with Newman quoted as saying, "Apparently it is thought that my presence lends some authority." Nyuk nyuk nyuk!

Thank you, O Picky who is called Picky. This error was present in Strunk's original, but is now banished from S & C. I have also removed Strunk's first example of the passive, which had the great disadvantage of not being, in fact, an example of the passive.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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