A Word, Please: Never give up on hopefully

From the time I was in school, I always loved studying languages and science and math. And I always hated history. To me, history comes off as one big, long, sad tale of Group X forcing itself on Group Y with Group Y trying, successfully or not, to fend off the aggressors.

Even when the good guys win, it’s little consolation. More bad guys are always out there. They never learn. Sometimes there are no good guys. That’s an even bigger downer.

I suspect this is partly why I’ve never been interested in etymology and word histories. I just never developed the habit of tracing how things got from Point A to Point B.

But recently I dug up a bit of language history that I found downright delightful. In it, I discovered an answer to a question that has long lingered in my mind, but that I never bothered to actually ask: why so many people believe that “hopefully” can’t be a sentence adverb.

People who object to “hopefully” as a sentence adverb say it means only “in a hopeful manner,” as in, “After his job interview, Walter hopefully waited by the phone.” They say it can’t mean “I hope” or “it is to be hoped.” Thus, “Hopefully, I will get the call tomorrow” is wrong.

It takes about two seconds to disprove this idea. The dictionary says that “hopefully” can indeed mean “it is to be hoped.” What’s more, anyone who’s used “frankly” or “unfortunately” or “interestingly” at the beginning of a sentence demonstrates that adverbs don’t just modify verbs. They can also modify whole sentences. There’s no reason to believe “hopefully” is handicapped in this regard.

So for years I’ve wondered why so many people disparage “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. But I never bothered to trace the history until now.

According to “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage,” the word “hopefully” has been around since at least the 17th Century. Back then, people mainly used it as a manner adverb, as in, “I hopefully await your reply.” Then, around 1960, people started using it in the other way adverbs are used: to modify whole sentences.

Why? That’s anyone’s guess.

“No one knows why a word or phrase or construction suddenly becomes popular—it just happens,” according to the usage guide. “And when it does, it is sure to attract the displeased attention of some guardian of the language.”

And attract attention it did. Shortly after the masses picked up this entirely legitimate use of “hopefully,” language cops freaked out. Theodore Bernstein, an influential language commentator, called it “solecistic.” The 1963 Funk & Wagnalls dictionary openly disapproved of it.

By 1965, the sentence-modifying “hopefully” was being openly denounced in the Saturday Review, the New Yorker and the New York Times. By 1972, opponents of the sentence-modifying “hopefully” saw their opinion cast in stone in Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

As far as my usage guide can tell, the strongest rationale for this view came from a piece written by Wilson Follett and published posthumously in 1963. Follett claimed that the sentence-modifying “hopefully” was the product of a “hack translation” of the German word “hoffentlich,” meaning “I hope so.”

But Follett “does not produce any hack translations to back up his assertions; all his examples seem to be from American newspapers,” the usage guide notes.

In other words, even the father of the anti-hopefully police couldn’t substantiate his position. So not only is it OK to use this “hopefully” today, it has always been OK. And that’s one bit of history that makes me smile.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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