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Sentence Adverbs -- The "Hopefully" Debate

Posted on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 3:28 PM

Ideally, this article will shed some light on the subject.

By Meredith L. Dias

You have likely encountered the "hopefully" debate in your editorial travels. In one camp are the traditional grammarians, who advise against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb; in the other camp are the modern grammarians, who assert that "hopefully" can function in such a capacity. So is one side correct and the other wrong? And what are sentence adverbs, anyway?

A sentence adverb, according to About.com grammar and composition guide Richard Nordquist, is "a word that modifies a sentence as a whole or a clause within a sentence." For example, consider this sentence: "Fortunately, the shampoo had a coconut scent." Without the sentence adverb, this would be a simple description of the shampoo's scent. However, the use of "fortunately" suggests that the speaker likes coconut scents. What you have just witnessed is a sentence adverb infusing an otherwise straightforward sentence with new subtext.

Many adjectives morph into sentence adverbs without controversy. We see adverbs like "obviously," "technically," and "actually" function quite often in this capacity. Few adverbs have faced as much scrutiny as "hopefully." Traditionally, the word means "in a hopeful manner"; however, it is used often in informal writing to denote the speaker's hopefulness about a given matter. Many are reluctant to accept "hopefully" in this context.

So why the controversy? Some grammarians fear that "hopefully" as a sentence adverb can obfuscate the meaning of a sentence. For example: "Hopefully, James will arrive on time." Does this mean that a hopeful James will arrive on time, or that the speaker is hopeful that he will arrive on time? Mignon Fogarty, known online as "Grammar Girl," weighed in on this issue in a 2007 podcast: "In most cases, the meaning is clear, especially when the sentence isn't about a person." She advises against using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb in sentences that involve a person (like the example above) to avoid confusion. Still, other grammarians shun "hopefully" as a sentence adverb altogether, citing the word's original meaning.

Thus, the debate continues. Do we adhere to tradition or change with the times? Though the original meaning of "hopefully" is clear, why can't it function as a sentence adverb? This is certainly not the first instance of grammatical microevolution that has faced staunch opposition from traditionalists. I suspect that for most editors -- myself included -- the instinct will be toward carrying the torch of tradition. However, Grammar Girl and some of her more modern contemporaries certainly make a compelling argument.

Meredith L. Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.

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