Hopefully, I can explain this

An editor told me that he noticed “hopefully” in a G.D. Gearino column, which I happened to have copy-edited. Here is the sentence:

And hopefully she doesn’t remember that the other patrons cheered as she and her pals were escorted out of the building.

Strict grammarians (some say language snobs) object to this use of “hopefully.” They say that the word means “in a hopeful manner,” not “it is to be hoped” or “we hope,” as Gearino means it in his sentence.


The second use of the word became in vogue early in the 20th century but has been out of favor, Michael Quinion of World Wide Words notes, since the mid-1960s. That disfavor with language purists and journalism professors reached a high point in the 1970s, about the time I became a copy editor. I learned that “hopefully” should not be used to mean “it is to be hoped” and I usually changed it. However, some years after I had learned about the objection to the word, I became aware that not every language expert is scandalized by “hopefully.”

(John Bremner in “Words on Words,” published in 1980, took a literal approach to “hopefully” and objected to its being used to mean “I hope.” William Safire in “On Language,” published in 1981, defended the use of “hopefully” to mean “it is to be hoped” as “time-tested and readily understood usage.” See? Two smart, respected commentators disagreed.)

Think of “hopefully” as you would “frankly” and “thankfully.” You might write, “Frankly, the blogosphere is full of idiots.” You don’t mean that the blogosphere is “in a frank manner.” You mean that you are expressing a frank opinion. Other words used this way are “apparently,” “happily,” “sadly,” “mercifully” and “presumably.” These words are sentence adverbs; they modify the whole sentence, not just the word that directly follows.

Some usage experts see “hopefully” as a useful sentence adverb. They caution, however, that the word rubs many readers (and editors) the wrong way and that writers would do well to avoid a construction that uses “hopefully” to mean “I hope.”

Bill Bryson in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words” expresses two other objections to “hopefully”: It can be ambiguous and it is lame. Here is a Robert Louis Stevenson quote that Bryson uses to show its almost humorous ambiguity:To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. Stevenson meant “in a hopeful manner,” but today, a writer might mean “it is to be hoped.” If you wanted it to be a sentence adverb, though, you’d probably set it off with commas: To travel, hopefully, is a better thing than to arrive.

Even though I am now neutral on the use of “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, I should take the advice of Jack Lynch (and Bryan Garner), Mavens’ Word of the Day, the American Heritage Book of the English Language and others and avoid it to keep some purist reader’s head from exploding. Besides, the Associated Press Stylebook rules out “hopefully” as a sentence adverb, and that’s the final law around these parts (that is, The N&O newsroom).

So how should I have copy-edited Gearino’s sentence? Perhaps this would have conveyed the same meaning without the dreaded “hopefully”:

If she is lucky, she doesn’t remember that the other patrons cheered as she and her pals were escorted out of the building.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.