Grammar Guerilla: Hopefully and Hopeful

Guerilla GorillaThis one will not be easy to change but it is easy enough to understand. Hopefully is an adverb, a word that modifies a verb (an action word). Thus, a correct usage would be: “Hopefully, he rose to address the assembly.” In this case hopefully describes the spirit in which the person rose to speak. The most frequent usage, however, is incorrect: “Hopefully it will not rain tomorrow.” The weather is not hopeful. The weather doesn’t have feelings of anticipation or expectation. The weather just is. What people usually mean when they say “Hopefully x will happen” is, “I hope that it will not snow tomorrow.” I’m not entirely certain why we have become reluctant to say “I hope x does not happen.” Perhaps it is part of general pattern of relativizing truth claims? We see this in constructions such as “I feel that…” or “In my opinion…” or “I think that…” On the surface these seem innocuous enough but the effect of such qualifiers is communicate the notion that “this is what I think but I’m not saying that it’s true for everyone.” Consider the difference between “It is cold outside” and “It seems to me to be cold outside.” In the first instance there is an unequivocal claim about what is the case. In the second, there is a claim about what is subjectively experienced.

In any event if you want to describe the hopeful attitude with which something is being done, then use hopefully. If, however, you mean say what you hope might be the case, then say it directly. This distinction works for other adverbs such as thankfully. “I am thankful that…” means one thing. “Thankfully, he received the donation to the Heidelblog” means something else.

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  1. I think labeling it as “incorrect usage” is incorrect. “It is hoped that” is not only a widely accepted usage but has a three-centuries long lexical history. Perhaps, it would be better to say that you really like it when … and dislike it when …. I know it adds a subjective aspect to your post, but, in this case, it’s a both-and kind of situation.

    • Ryan,

      Usage rules all only if we assume a nominalist relation between words and the things they signify.

      When says “hopefully it will not rain” one means, “I hope that it doesn’t rain.” Rain is neither hopeful nor pessimistic, is it?

      I’m not a nominalist. Convention and intent do not determine reality.

  2. I’m enjoying these Grammar Guerilla segments. I can’t wait until Dr. Clark gets to some of my favorite sore subjects, “irregardless” and the oral pronunciation of “moot” as “mute.”

  3. I was taught to not use “I think” in elementary school. We were repeatedly encouraged to use “I feel” instead. That is yet another reason why government schools should be made illegal.
    The phrases “In my opinion…” and “I think that…” are just qualifiers to indicate a lack of confidence in what you are about to say.

    • Or, Joel, it’s a way of recognizing the plausibility of other views. As one who regularly makes analyses based on primary source materials, I often deal with making historically-based judgments. At times their a competing, equally possible interpretations for an event’s occurrence. So, we are trained to qualify our statements at points, so we do not impugn the credibility of other claims about which we have more certainty.

      I mean, how many people want arrogant, “know-it-all” historians? We recognize we don’t have all the evidence we’d like at points.

      As to subject at hand, I am not persuaded, eh, eh, that grammar is static. Rules change as well as usages. This change, however, was made a long time ago and I think it’s correct to be used in a “it is to be hoped that” sort of way.

    • This is a good point: “qualify our statements at points, so we do not impugn the credibility of other claims about which we have more certainty”. However, I still agree with Joel. Why would we say “In my opinion…” and “I think that…” to qualify our statement rather than, for example, giving the reasons that there could be a different interpretation?

  4. This same topic is addressed in the following publication: Doing our own thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care / John McWhorter/ New York : Gotham Books, 2003

    Sure, languages evolve over time, culture dependent (or is it “devolve?”). Perhaps some things are only relevant to different cultures at certain phases of their evolution, but does that mean that they don’t reach a high point some where along the line where form matters more than function?

  5. Dr Clark, I think you have assumed that “hopeful” the adjective can only apply to a sentient being that is exercising hope, and not to a situation that offers or conveys hope (and that hope may be certain, uncertain, or vain). If you were talking about “regretful”, that kind of assumption would be justified, as we have the word “regrettable” to denote a situation that excites regret. We do not, however, have the word “hopable” (if the word for being able to hop is “hoppable”, as it would be our side of the Pond), or “hopeable” (if “hopable” means being able to hop, as it might do your side of the pond – I’m comparing the way we spell “worshipped” with your spelling, “worshiped”); the word “hopeful” conveys the meaning that that word would convey. I don’t suppose I need to say more, do I?

  6. “Flaunt” vs. “flout.”

    I recently heard a sermon by a very fine, learned preacher in which he said “flaunt” consistently when get should have said “flout.” Or, better still, he should have said “reject” or “disregard.”

  7. I could say that my typo above was to keep you alert but, alas, that would be a lie. Hopefully you will excuse me.

  8. Ah, you caught me on this one! Hopefully, I’ll be able to avoid it in the future — oops, dang it!

    George, however, is correct. McWhorter makes a convincing case in that and other books. You may feel superior for standing your ground on this grammatical hill, but if you are going to stand only on reason and logic, there are tons of other ‘correct’ usages of English that you would have to abandon if you want to be consistent. Unfortunately, I can’t come up with a list, so I refer you to McWhorter, or maybe others can step in?

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