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When I was talking about sentential hopefully, I said that hopefully meaning “in a hopeful manner” had pretty much fallen out of my idiolect. It turns out I was wrong.  I would definitely say this headline, “Obama Speaks Hopefully of Movement on Jobs Bill“, without a second thought, and without difficulty of interpretation.

The position of the adverb is crucial to the interpretation, though; if the sentence were “Obama hopefully speaks of movement on jobs bill”, I’d get the sentential meaning much more readily than the “full of hope” meaning. (If you’re a syntax nerd, the reason is that the position of hopefully in the sentence affects the dependency structure of the sentence, limiting what nodes hopefully can attach to.)


A few posts ago, I was talking about the sentential-modifier meaning of hopefully, or in non-linguist speak, hopefully in the sentence:

(1) Hopefully I’ll be able to escape from the dungeon this afternoon.

This is not the original meaning of hopefully, which originally meant “in a hopeful manner”. Although it seems that the original meaning has lost prominence in recent years (and has almost completely fallen out of at least my lexicon), it’s still in use:

(2) “‘A whip isn’t a weapon,’ he replied hopefully.”

But as soon as you have the perception that a new meaning is edging the old one out, prescriptivists see it as a battleground for the language, and lift their skinny fists like antennas to heaven, crying out for someone to aid them in their quest to return the word to its original, unsullied state. And you know what? On its face, that might seem like a reasonable stance; after all, we don’t want to open the floodgates and allow any word to mean anything, right? At that point it seems it’s a slippery slope to the Humpty Dumpty position on language, named for the following exchange in “Through the Looking-Glass”:

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

But this slope is not nearly as slippery as prescriptivists would have you believe. There is a world of difference between Humpty’s singular declaration that glory means “a nice knock-down argument” and the acknowledgment that a meaning that has been in common usage for almost 80 years (sentential hopefully) is a proper meaning of the word at this point. Maybe you don’t believe me, or still don’t feel entirely comfortable with new meanings. I wouldn’t blame you; this is a commonly-held belief known as the etymological fallacy.

So let’s look at some examples of words whose common and well-accepted meanings were really quite different from their original meanings. None of these, as far as I’m aware, are controversial meanings. They all represent substantial changes from their original meanings. And the English language has not fallen into whateverism as a result. Keep these in mind the next time you’re about to object to a newer usage just because it’s new, whether it be hopefully, anxious, nauseous, or something else entirely. All the definitions are based on the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, online version ( And many thanks to the commenters on the earlier post, who offered suggestions for some of the best words below.

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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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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

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I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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