Episode 76: September 21, 2007
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is whether it’s OK to start a sentence with the word hopefully.
Paul from Long Island, NY, called the voice-mail line with this comment:
I was wondering if maybe you could do a podcast devoted to the misuse of the word hopefully. It's an adverb, but nobody uses it that way. I drive a lot of people crazy with that one; it's a big pet peeve of mine. Maybe you could drive more people crazy with it than I do.
I'm probably going to make everyone crazy with this topic, because I think it should be OK to start a sentence with “hopefully,” but I'm still going to tell you not to do it.
Hopefully Versus I Hope
The problem Paul is talking about is when people start a sentence with “hopefully” instead of “I hope.”
If you've ever heard me give a radio interview, you've probably heard me self-correct this problem. Here's what a self-correction sounds like; this one’s from last week's Business Week podcast:
I don't mean to pick on the speaker here—as I said, I do this a lot. I just happened to hear the Business Week reporter right when I needed a clip. I don't know what's going on in her head when she does this, but here's what's going on in my head when it happens to me:
Hopefully [Oh no! Oh no! I started a sentence with “hopefully”! Abort! Abort!] We hope...
Here's the deal: the traditional use of hopefully, which goes back to at least the 1600s, is to mean “in a hopeful manner,” as in Squiggly looked hopefully at the box of chocolates. Paul is correct that hopefully is an adverb in that sentence. It modifies the verb looked. Squiggly is looking in a hopeful manner at the chocolates.
But about 300 years later, people started using hopefully to mean “I hope,” as in Hopefully, I'll get some of that chocolate.
In that sentence, hopefully is behaving like a sentence adverb. You see, adverbs modify verbs, but they can also modify other adverbs or, as they do in this case, whole sentences. Hopefully means I'm hopeful I'll get some of that chocolate.
Other words that can function as sentence adverbs include fortunately and honestly, and for some reason these are less controversial than hopefully. Nobody has ever written in complaining about sentences like these:
Fortunately, the chocolate was out of reach.
Honestly, I wish I were somewhere else.
I am hopeful you can see that the sentence adverbs fortunately and honestly modify the whole sentence in the same way that hopefully did in the previous example. Fortunately relates to the entire point that the chocolate was out of reach, and honestly describes the subject's state of mind and gives the whole sentence a confessional quality.
Here's another example with hopefully:
Hopefully, Steve broached the subject of an expedition.
But language sticklers will say, "Aha! We've got you now!" Hopefully, Steve broached the subject of an expedition could mean two different things. It could mean Steve broached the subject in a hopeful manner, or it could mean the storyteller is hopeful that Steve broached the subject of an expedition. And the language sticklers are right.
Context Can Make Hopefully OK to Use at the Beginning of a Sentence
The counter-argument is that there are few instances where a reasonable person would be confused; context usually makes the meaning clear. And if there is an instance where intolerable confusion will ensue, just don't use hopefully. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. In most cases, the meaning is clear, especially when the sentence isn't about a person:
Hopefully, the expedition will be approved.
Nobody is going to think the expedition is hopeful.
Hopefully, it won't rain.
Nobody is going to think the weather is hopeful.
And even when there is a human (or mammalian) subject, context usually makes the meaning clear:
We don't have chips to go with the salsa? Hopefully, Aardvark is getting chips on his way home.
So now that I've made the strongest argument I can for starting a sentence with hopefully, I still have to say, don't do it.
Avoid Conflict by Avoiding Hopefully
For some reason, to many language sticklers, starting a sentence with "hopefully" has become a mark of ignorance. It really grates on people's nerves. It's not as bad as using literally for emphasis when you mean “figuratively" or saying someone graduated college, but it won't help you win friends or influence people.*
I am hopeful that starting a sentence with hopefully will become more acceptable in the future. In fact, many language experts have come around on starting a sentence with hopefully. The response ranges from an enthusiastic "fully standard" at Dictionary.com to a resigned "lost cause" from Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage.
Still, I know from the messages I get that many of you disagree, and this is a battle that isn't going to go away anytime soon.