Nothing wrong with Hopefully as Modal Adjunct

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My 2009 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook has this to say about hopefully:

It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.

The 2012 edition of the AP Stylebook reverses that dictum. Professional writers who follow that guide may now use the word to mean “it is hoped,” “we hope” and “let us hope” without opprobrium.

It’s gratifying that AP has finally acknowledged that hopefully can be used as a modal adjunct as well as a manner adjunct–especially as English speakers have been using it that way for at least eighty years.

Used as a “manner adjunct,” an adverb answers the question “how?” about a verb, as in “He saw her clearly.”

Used as a “modal adjunct,” an adverb modifies the entire sentence, as in “Clearly, he saw her at the coffee shop.” Here the word doesn’t tell “how” he saw, but that–without any doubt–he saw her.

Because the AP change of attitude has stirred such fury among so many, I wanted to see what Fowler had to say about hopefully in his landmark work Modern English, published in 1926. He had nothing to say about hopefully, but plenty about the misuse of the verb hope.

Hopefully is absent also from Horwill’s Modern American Usage (OUP, 1935).

According to an article by Geoffrey Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education, usage specialist Wilson Follett (1886-1963) started the trouble with hopefully, calling its modal use “unEnglish and eccentric.”

Although Strunk had made no mention of the despicable use of hopefully in the original version of Elements of Style, and although editor and expander E.B. White did not think to include it in his 1959 revision, he inserted it with an emotional note in the 1972 revision:

Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. …it offends the ear of many…who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.

I suspect that this testy note in the over-venerated Elements has had a lot to do with spreading Follett’s prejudice. William Safire, who wrote a respected column on language for the NY Times Magazine from 1979 until his death in 2009, at first rejected, but then accepted the modal use of hopefully; he was called “a lousy quitter” for his trouble.

Both the OED and Merriam-Webster include definitions for the modal use of hopefully. The earliest recorded use in the OED is dated 1932; M-W notes that an 18th century (1702) example has been found in a book written by Cotton Mather. OED warns that “many writers avoid it.” M-W says that the word still has “a few die-hard critics,” but concludes that “most usage commentators have by now come to realize that it is entirely standard.”

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7 thoughts on “Nothing wrong with Hopefully as Modal Adjunct”

  1. This is an eye opener for me. I tried to recall how often I have seen the use of the word, I know it is used in speech maybe in children’s books but honestly I am uncertain.Thanks for the information.Very interesting this.

  2. This is all correct:
    “Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. …it offends the ear of many…who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.”

    I would include the noun “vagueness”, also, but does that fall under the category of “ambiguity”. I believe that these are always more specific, sharper, and more concise to express ideas than with the word “hopefully”. Why shouldn’t the writer sharpen his blade to a keen edge, rather than using vague, soft, and nonsensival terms?

  3. O…k…I guess…I still can’t work up any enthusiasm for it. Of course in speech it is said all the time and I would not claim that I don’t use it just as much as an “ordinary” person does (going by what my keepers tell me of ordinary people). You certainly can no longer make the argument that it is at all eccentric. The difference I see from the comparison to sadly is that there is no ful-ness in sadly. It seems like “hopely” would be more fitting. Bernstein offers (but does not call for) the creation of “hopably”, comparing the German hoffentlich. Since there is no other word for what we want hopefully to mean in this environment, I guess it makes some sense to simply recognize how it is already being used. Of course, the same argument could be made for the singular they/there
    too, and I don’t think that has any stamp of approval.

  4. Hopefully (pun intended) all this brouhaha about the use of hopefully as a modal adjunct will fizzle out and die a natural death. Hat off to AP Style for changing their stance on this. I don’t see anything wrong is sanctioning an increasingly standard use of the word.

    @D.A.W. : I suspect a heavy case of year-end sticky fingers: “nonsensival”. Or were you trying to slap a neologism on our unsuspecting selves? (smile). Be that as it may, and noting and notwithstanding your dissent with my assent to hopefully meaning it is to be hoped, hopefully your 2014 is a good, productive and above all, healthy year!

  5. Oh, Nelinda K.
    On my standard keyboard, “c” and “v” are adjacent to one another, so it is easy to make a typographical error with one instead of the other. I apologize for overlooking that, but in my defence, I did not type “w” instead of “m”, or vice-versa.

    I still think that there are are more specific ways to express the “thought” that this article is about**. Here are some examples:
    “in all optimism”, “from an optimistic point of view”, “with all good wishes”, “with optimistic wishes”, “with pleasant wishes”,…, and more, if we thought about it for a while.

    **Note that hopes can be good hopes, neutral hopes, bad hopes, or evil hopes. I’ll be honest. There was a supervisor whom I despised and I wrote him an e-mail that said “I home that you go to you home country and you are eaten by wild dogs there.” I admit it – that is an a despicable hope.

    Likewise, I dislike the closing “regards” at the end of letters or e-mail becasue reards could be {best, good, pleasant, neutral, bad, evil, or despicable}.
    I am alwas careful to write “best regards” or “pleasant regards”,
    or to think of something mildly unpleasant.

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