Hopefully. Good gravy, why are there so many misguided souls up in arms over this innocent little word? I received a comment about it recently:

You may be correct about the word “loan” Gabe, but your credibility is damaged by your incorrect use of the word “hopefully”.

The “incorrect” usage he mentions?

(1) Hopefully my phrasing of the question tipped you off that this was a trick.

Now, this commenter was obviously quite polite about it, but I’ve seen others who are quite different. They see a usage like (1), of hopefully as a sentential adverb meaning something between “I hope” and “With luck”, and then they start a tirade about how that’s not what hopefully means, about the sad state of grammar in our modern world, and on and on. This argument, as far as I can tell, runs as follows: hopefully started its life as an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner”, and that’s how it was used up until the early 20th century, as in (2):

(2) [...] in the late revival a number of persons were hopefully converted in Scituate [...]

But then hopefully gained a related usage as the sentential adverb.  The OED first notes this usage in 1932, in a pretty high place: the New York Times Book Review. And, interestingly enough, this newer meaning has pretty well replaced the original meaning, so much so that many people my age (myself included) do not have the original meaning available in our lexicons. Which is why it struck me as a little strange when someone first insisted to me that hopefully couldn’t be used in the only way I naturally used it. I dismissed that claim as an eccentricity. But then another person said it, and another. I started to think that maybe there was something wrong with hopefully. Then still more people complained about it, in really stupid posts about hopefully, and I realized that there couldn’t be anything wrong with it.

I’ve only ever seen two coherent arguments against hopefully as a sentential adverb.  One is that hopefully is an adverb, and as we learned in elementary school, adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  A sentential adverb is asked to modify a sentence — instead of modifying the verb, it modifies the entire proposition — and that, we’re told, just isn’t done.  Except, of course, that it is.  Often, and uncontroversially:

(3a) Happily..they intended Neptune, or I know not what Devill. [1614, Purchas, cited in OED]
(3b) Luckily..our speculations are supported by facts. [1762, Kames, cited in OED]
(3c) Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. [1939, Gone with the Wind]

Now let’s say that you want to be completely absurd and try to argue that these adverbs somehow are modifying the verbs intended, supported, and give.  (They’re not; don’t bother.)  Or maybe you’re going to claim that you don’t like those sentential adverbs either.  Whatever.  There are still lots more sentential adverbs that are absolutely unambiguous in what they modify and absolutely beyond reproach:

(4) Perhaps it was not me who broke the lamp.

That perhaps is an adverb is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary, and it’s clear that perhaps in (4) modifies the whole proposition. (What would it even mean for perhaps to modify only the verb?)  So it’s not that sentential adverbs don’t exist, nor is it that they are considered uniformly bad in any variety of English I have ever encountered.  Clearly, (note the sentential adverb) this is not a valid argument against sentential adverb hopefully.

On to the second argument, then, which is that the original meaning of hopefully was “in a manner full of hope”, the meaning intended in (2).  But this is just as simple-minded an argument as the first.  Yes, from its first discovered usage around 1639, all the way up to sometime around 1900, this was the only meaning of hopefully.  And then it gained a new meaning.  I know, prescriptivists; that’s just another example of the fallacy of common usage.  So what if everyone uses hopefully wrong; if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you?

But look, if you’re not willing to use a non-original meaning of a word, you’re going to have to excise a substantial portion of your vocabulary.  How much?  Well, glass, snack, and naturally for starters; they all started their lives with different meanings from those they are now uncontroversially allowed to have. A discussion of some words like these, and how their meanings have shifted — to show that hopefully isn’t the only one — will be the next post. Hopefully.

[Update 01/28/10: The follow-up post is now posted; check out how glass, of course, snack, naturally, enthusiasm, and quarantine have all changed their meanings over time.]

[Update 05/17/12: Fred Shapiro tracked sentential hopefully back even further, to Cotton Mather in 1702. More on this, plus the AP's acceptance of it, in a new post.]

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