You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘sentential adverb’ tag.

First off, if you haven’t already heard, the AP Stylebook finally dropped its objection to sentential hopefully (i.e., the “it is hoped” meaning), thanks in no small part to John McIntyre’s agitation. Another shibboleth bites the dust, hooray.

If you’re harboring any doubt about the wisdom of this move, cast it to sea. Living with sentential hopefully isn’t giving into modern ignorance; it’s giving in to traditional usage. Emily Brewster points out this 1999 article from Fred Shapiro in American Speech. Smack on its first page, we’re given a quote from Cotton Mather in 1702:

“Chronical Diseases, which evidently threaten his Life, might hopefully be relieved by his removal.”

In previous work, Shapiro traced it back to 1851, and here’s an example I found in Google Books from 1813. So it’s not some new and insidious usage, though this is often claimed.

And it’s not like sentential adverbs are inherently bad, either; witness well-regarded members of our lexicon such as frankly, happily, thankfully, or luckily, each of which can be used at the start of a sentence with nary an eyelash batting. The truth is that accepting sentential hopefully is not giving in to a tide of misusage but rectifying an objection that should never have been raised.

Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t see it that way. In a piece at Salon, she views the AP’s leniency on hopefully as capitulation. She thinks the AP’s giving in to the uneducated masses instead of remaining the guiding and educating light it ought to be. It’s another sign that no one knows about language anymore, and no one cares about it, not even its presumed defenders. She closes with this regret:

“Language keeps evolving, and that’s fine and natural. Yet as it does, I’ll still gaze hopefully toward a world in which we battle over our words and our rules because we know them so well, and love them so much.”

Hey, you and me both. But here’s the thing: it’s not just everyone else who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Williams needs some work to get into her own dream world as well. While she lectures us who see nothing wrong with sentential hopefully about how we ought to have a better language arts education, she explains her disgust with it by exasperatedly pointing out:

“‘Hopefully’ is an adverb. An adverb, I tells ya […]”

Ok, cool, but I’m with the red-headed guy here:

She’s really stressing the hopefully-is-an-adverb point, which is fine, but no one’s saying it’s not. The sentential usage is an adverbial usage. If you think that people think that hopefully can be used in a non-adverbial context, then you’re not in a position to be disparaging anyone’s knowledge of English.

So it’s strange that Williams is complaining about people who don’t know enough about English causing the acceptance of sentential hopefully, since the people opposing sentential hopefully apparently don’t know English either. A person who really knew about the history of usage in English would know that sentential hopefully is a member of a large and grammatical class of sentential adverbs, that it’s been around for centuries, that, in short, there’s nothing wrong with it. It engenders some distaste from the uninformed and it’s perhaps a bit informal, but there’s no reason why it should be so despised. Many of the people who condemn the rabble for not knowing the rules or history of English don’t know them themselves.

Let me cast the mote out of my own eye first: I don’t either. I was gobsmacked by the Brewster/Shapiro/Mather finding; in an earlier post talking about sentential hopefully, I only had it going back to 1932. There is a lot that any one person won’t know about a language. But one key difference between people who claim to care about how language works and those who actually do is that the latter category will investigate a usage before accusing it of being bad grammar.

So yes, it’s a shame that so many people don’t care about language. But the problem isn’t that alone; it’s also that too many who do care about language care about it wrong. They’re not interested in the actual data; they’re interested in what they decided the language ought to be. They argue their points in a world apart from actual usage, based on the logic that they presume underlies language. When they do cite usage, it’s with a heavy confirmation bias. And their complaints are run through with this strange — and to me, infuriating — willingness to grant themselves pardons from their otherwise zero-tolerance policy. Williams groans at people who use nauseous for “nauseated” (standard since the 19th century, BTW) or who write gonna, but then gladly admits that she uses stabby and rapey*.

This isn’t caring about language; it’s caring about feeling superior.

*: Which, by the way, seriously?


Apparently sentential adverbs are a secret. An open secret, of course, which explains why almost everyone knows about them and uses them regularly. Everyone, of course, except prescriptivists. I already talked about this regarding prescriptivists’ insistence that hopefully can’t be used as a sentential adverb, but now I’ve come across it again in the belief that most importantly can’t be used as a sentential adverb, as in (1a), and that instead most important should be employed (1b):

(1a) Most importantly, you want to intrigue students […]
(1b) Most important, you want to intrigue students.

When I read that, I thought they were putting me on. (1b) sounds awfully awkward to me. If were editing someone and they came to me with this sentence, I would immediately suggest that most importantly was surely what they meant. If they insisted on using the adjectival form, I’d want something stronger than a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence; I think I’d want to use a colon.

So why do people disagree with my exquisite punctuative tastes? What’s their argument for the adjective? It’s an intriguing one: the sentential modifying most important is said to derive from what is most important, as in sentence (2):

(2) “His color is very good, and what is most important, he is himself, just as much himself in color as he was in pen and ink.

The claim is that the modern form most important is an elided version of the longer what is most important. Now, that strikes me as something of a just-so story; if that sort of elision is standard with what’s more important, why don’t we also see it attested with other similar constructions, such as what’s most interesting or what’s more notable? One possibility is that what’s more important is more frequent than the other constructions; evidence for this hypothesis comes from the Google n-gram corpus, in which there are far more examples of what is more important than any other single what is more X:

what is more important: 31740
what is more interesting: 5795
what is more likely: 4566
what is more difficult: 2413
what is more surprising: 2189
(and so on)

And some of these other adjectives do behave like important:

(3) Even more surprising, he has put his scholarly findings in “popular” form […]

So maybe the elision story isn’t a just-so story after all. And even if it is, sentential most important is well-attested in the Oxford English Dictionary and on the Internet:

(4a) What were these quasi-stellar objects and, perhaps even more important, how were they giving off so much energy? [OED, 1964]
(4b) Most important, he never wavered from his driving principles […]

And as such, I am willing to accept most important as standard for people who are not me. But what of most importantly? Well, the secret of sentential adverbs is simply that there’s nothing wrong with them either. Certainly you’d sound quite mad if you said what’s most importantly, but that’s fine, because that’s not where most importantly comes from. Most importantly is just a sentence-modifying adverbial phrase like any other:

(5a) Most importantly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign […]
(5b) Clearly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5c) Oddly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5d) Luckily, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign
(5e) Frankly, he wants to focus on moving Provo residents past the campaign

(The last two sentential adverbs have been attested in the OED since 1717 and 1847, respectively.) In none of (5b-e) could the adverb be converted to an adjective.

More importantly probably arose independently of what’s more important, either as a regularization of the sentential adjective more important to sentential adverb, or through some separate lineage. And I say “regularization” here only because sentence-modifying adjectives like most important (and most surprising) are outliers; most sentential-modifying phrases are adverbial.

Lastly, I’m told by the MWDEU that the bare adjective important cannot be used as a sentential modifier, even though more important can. That strikes me as very strange; after all, what is important is no less valid than what is more important, right? Instead, importantly must be used in that situation.

So prescriptivists holding the “most important, not most importantly” view are asserting that importantly is only valid if it is unmodified, while important is only valid if it is modified. That seems to me an odd stance to take, especially compared to the simpler explanation that importantly is valid whether or not it’s modified.

Summary: more important and more importantly are both valid sentence-modifying phrases, although I personally would only use the latter. Importantly is also a valid sentential modifier, although oddly important is not.

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.]

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

About The Blog

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.

About Me

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.

@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 961 other followers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: