I’m sure you’re all aware of the alleged incorrectness of sentence-adverbial (or “speaker-oriented”) hopefully (for a discussion of why apparently pointless decisions to chastise one sentence adverb and not another get made, see this LH post from last year). Well, Mark Liberman over at the Log has run some numbers, and it turns out that while “subject-oriented” hopefully (i.e., meaning “in a hopeful manner”) is fairly common in fiction (almost always modifying descriptions of speaking, looking, and going: “Doug looked up at him hopefully”), elsewhere (in newspapers, magazines, academic writing, and speech) it occurs, on average, just 5% of the time, and if you restrict the search to spoken usage, the percentage is zero. That’s right, people essentially never use hopefully to mean “in a hopeful manner” when they’re speaking their native language. So the word clearly means “it is to be hoped,” although in certain restricted environments it can be used to mean “in a hopeful manner.” Hopefully, we can now put this “incorrect” nonsense to rest.


  1. tom wootton says

    It is not the correctness or incorrectness that people get miffed by – it is the fact that this started as a bit of politician’s speak, implying that the rather than it being a personal hope, or the hope of a specific group, it was generally shared by everyone, that only a lunatic would deny that such an outcome was to be hoped.
    ‘I hope’ or ‘with any luck’ – a more accurate arrangement of words, suggests the very thing that the speaker using hopefully wants to avoid suggesting – that the opinion in question is, to however great an extent, only his opinion, and therefore open to debate.
    Any fight against this use is however pointless as it has entered common usage; while the fight lasted, it was worthwhile.

  2. John Emerson says

    It’s useful for
    I’m trying to get funding to remake “The Road to Bali”, said the comedian hopefully.

  3. Tom: There’s no evidence that this started as politician’s speak. Some commentators thought it was a translation of German “hoffentlich” but there’s no evidence for that either. MWDEU says about hopefully: “No one knows why a word or phrase or construction suddenly becomes popular – it just happens.”

  4. Tom: goofy is right, the “politician” thing is a typical aspersion to cast at a usage one does not approve of. But surely you can see that “hopefully” is being used in exactly the same way as “sadly,” “frankly,” and other sentence adverbials you presumably have no quarrel with. It’s a mystery to me why it ever got picked on in the first place.

  5. Tom: If we banned all the words and constructions people use maliciously or dishonestly we wouldn’t have any left. Words don’t lie to people; people lie to people.

  6. Ooh, that’s a good line. I may steal it.

  7. Despairingly I say unto you that this controversy has surely, clearly, and absolutely not been laid to rest.

  8. “Don’t use hopefully adverbially”, said Tom prescriptively.

  9. SnowLeopard says

    Maybe no one ever uses “hopefully” to mean “in a hopeful manner” because “in a hopeful manner” hardly means anything anyway. It certainly doesn’t illuminate the person’s actual demeanor in any way I find helpful, and I think the key to understanding the person’s words or actions is knowing what they’re hoping for, not that they hope for things in general (which can be assumed). Any synonym for “in a hopeful manner” is therefore only so much wasted breath, and the fact that this usage creeps most often into fiction and journalism just underscores for me how thoughtless such writing often is. On the other hand, “hopefully” is meaningful, and therefore useful, when hope can be attributed to the speaker, because the rest of the sentence spells out precisely what’s hoped for.

  10. I didn’t realize it was looked down on. I always learnt it was an Americanism!

  11. This all leaves prescriptivists in rank grammatical antimony, of course, since ‘it is hoped’ is a passive construction.

  12. Arthur Crown says

    SnowLeopard wrote, “hopefully” is meaningful…
    ‘Meaningful’ is another word that shocked the entire British Isles when it alighted there with ‘hopefully’, sometime around 1970, I think. They were first taken up by the media (actually, ‘media’ is another media word from the late 60s). Zwicky said ‘hopefully’ is 50 yrs old, but I don’t think it’s been in common usage for more than 35. I didn’t start using ‘hopefully’ until I lived in Germany and as someone said, German has hoeffentlich which is a useful word so I started using it in English too. (Really it was Goofy who said it, but I can’t write ‘Goofy said…’ I would feel like I was a Disney character).

  13. Er, antinomy.

  14. John Emerson says

    Before China was opened its main exports were pig bristles and antimony. I just barely understood why pig bristles were an export product, but I couldn’t figure out the antinomy exports at all. I assumed that dialectical thinking produced enormous quantities of it, but I couldn’t figured out where the market was.

  15. rootlesscosmo says

    I couldn’t figured out where the market was.
    Tudor England?

  16. Leo Caesius says

    I’ve always considered the sentence-adverbial use of “hopefully” to be the English equivalent of Arabic inshallah (actually used in many Islamic languages) or Greek (and Italian) magari.

  17. @SnowLeopard: Really? You find no helpful distinction between
    “You are coming, aren’t you?” he said [hopefully/accusingly/angrily/wearily]

  18. How much truth is there in the allegation that it is a calque from Ge. hoffentlich, possibly via Yiddish-influenced showbusiness-speak?

  19. SnowLeopard says

    @The Ridger: I guess you’re suggesting that in this context, “hopefully” refers to some kind of stereotypical intonation and/or facial expression of “hopefulness”, something like “speaking quickly and with a quick rise in pitch, eyes wide and lips rounded”, to reflect the manner of utterance, assuming that’s how most speakers of English speak “hopefully”. I know I don’t have that exaggerated an affect, which comes across to me as somewhat childish; I imagine some people sometimes do, outside of cartoons, but I don’t know how often. Anyway, my impression is that “hope” isn’t one of the universally recognizable facial expressions. I can imagine situations where someone is speaking “hopefully” in a more confident and less excited manner: slower, a slight decline in pitch, and stronger emphasis on “coming, aren’t” than on the other words, perhaps with a slight smile. Or in a significantly less confident and somewhat pleading tone, quieter, more (audible) constriction in the throat, a more restricted range of pitch, and eyebrows raised in the middle in a submissive pose. And I still don’t know quite what he’s hoping for, and why: is he hoping for the person’s company, to keep an eye on a rival, to satisfy a quota, etc. Those varying considerations may be reflected to greater or lesser degrees in the person’s demeanor, and so I’m left not knowing much about the person’s manner of delivey after all. Your alternatives of accusingly, angrily, and wearily all seem less ambiguous to me, and therefore less objectionable. But maybe I’m alone in wanting precision in such things, which is fine.

  20. Arthur Crown: “Zwicky said ‘hopefully’ is 50 yrs old, but I don’t think it’s been in common usage for more than 35.”
    No, I didn’t say that. I said that the explosive spread of sentence-adverbial “hopefully” happened about 50 years ago. Complaints about it from usage critics appeared in the early 60s — these critics typically begin complaining about a usage when it already has some currency in “respectable” sources — and the popular press began denouncing it in earnest in 1965. MWDEU says “the evidence in our files shows a considerable increase beginning in 1964.”
    The OED’s first cite is from 1932, in a review in the New York Times Book Review, and MWDEU has unmistakable examples from 1954 and 1955-56 and several examples from the 40s and 50s whose interpretation is not entirely clear. Probably antedatings from before 1932 will be found, but things didn’t begin to pick up until the late 50s and early 60s. Already by 1963 it was in Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary.
    (Yes, it originated in the U.S. and spread to the U.K. in the 70s.)
    Now, about estimating the age of usages. People — linguists included — are not at all good at this. To begin with, memory is fallible. In addition, these estimates are dependent on the accidents of your personal history, including things like when you happened to first notice a usage or had it pointed out to you. (Estimates of how frequent some usage is and assessments of who uses it are also unreliable.) These estimates are not evidence of anything, and are often seriously mistaken; you have to look at actual data.
    By the way (to tom wootton), nothing in the OED or MWDEU suggests any connection of sentence-adverbial “hopefully” to political discourse.

  21. John Emerson says

    Snow Leopard, you seem to have an odd blind spot.

  22. John Emerson says

    Snow Leopard, you seem to have an odd blind spot.

  23. SnowLeopard says

    @Mr. Emerson: Quite possibly. I’ll add it to my list.

  24. J. Del Col says

    Could we say that the distinction between ‘antimony’ and ‘antinomy’ is elemental?

  25. I’m wondering how often, in speech, we use ANY adverb in the place that “hopefully” would fall.
    The dog looked hopefully at the door.
    The dog looked wistfully at the door.
    The dog looked angrily at the door.
    I mean, when we’re talking, do we say ANY of those sorts of words?
    I don’t think so (and I’m the kid who used to make my parents laugh bcs of the words I chose: at age 6, “I hurled myself away from the squabbling dogs”)

  26. Oh, my world–I just realized–1965 was 50 years ago!!
    I understand that “hopefully” might not make you think of a specific intonation/expression combination, but it does to me.
    and to someone *writing*, all those adverbs are very useful, bcs it just takes too long to say “with a slight questioning tone, and a faint brightening of his feature and small list to both eyebrows.”

  27. Arthur C. Crown says

    Toots: “I just realized–1965 was 50 years ago!!”
    No it wasn’t.
    To Arnold Zwicky:
    I wrote, “Zwicky said ‘hopefully’ is 50 yrs old, but I don’t think it’s been in common usage for more than 35.”
    You can cite the first use until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not of any value – except to linguists, I guess – unless it is in common use. Now I understand that it isn’t easy to always pin that down. Using ‘the media’ to mean tv and print journalism would be easy, because you just have to look up the publication of McLuhan’s book; it may not be the first use, but it was the influential one.
    With ‘hopefully’, if I were writing a novel set in 1939, and I asked Arnold Zwicky, “Would my characters say ‘hopefully’?” Arnold Zwicky would say, “‘The OED’s first cite is from 1932, in a review in the New York Times Book Review.” Well, bravo, but now you’ve screwed up my novel!

  28. David Harmon says

    “1965 was 50 years ago”, my left foot! I was born in 1966, and celebrate my 42nd birthday this year.

  29. I think it’s possible to look hopeful. The dog example is perfect. Have you never seen a dog looking at you hopefully, almost imploring you to throw him a morsel of food? It’s an expression you can never forget.

  30. Next up: “momentarily”. Increasingly used to mean “very soon” rather than “briefly”…

  31. Don’t forget “presently”.

  32. Hopefully, we can be hopeful that the issue has run its course..

  33. To Arthur Crown: You seem to be reading me exactly backwards. My original comment was about the *explosive spread* of sentence-adverbial “hopefully”, not about its first attested use, and I said that clearly in my earlier response. (I also said “about fifty years”, rounding things off. These things are not precisely datable, so exact figures would be misleading.)
    I did add information about first attestations, just because your response was couched in those terms. But what I said was focused on when the usage became widespread.

  34. David Harmon says

    P.S.: Hardcore prescriptivists should be rigged up with one of those “invisible fence” collars, and jolted every time they violate their own rules. 😉

  35. A. Crown says

    To Arnold Zwicky:
    I don’t think I’m reading you backwards, but we seem to be confusing one another. As far as I can tell, we are not disagreeing except about the usefulness of first citations, so let’s leave it there. Your LL piece was helpful, by the way, as they usually are. So thank you for that.

  36. Leo Caesius says

    Next up: “momentarily”. Increasingly used to mean “very soon” rather than “briefly”…
    Or for that matter “literally,” increasingly used to mean “metaphorically” rather than, well, “literally,” as in “I’ve literally gone completely insane.”

  37. Anyways, irregardless of how hard we try, some words get used in spite of rules.

  38. tsk tsk tsk, Ron,
    It’s “irregar’less”.

  39. TheGood Doctor says

    Has anyone heard of William Strunk, Jr.? He first published this in 1918, “The Elements of Style”. He said it best then, and it still holds true today. Read it and live it!

  40. David Marjanović says

    Some commentators thought it was a translation of German “hoffentlich” but there’s no evidence for that either.

    That does explain, though, why I use it all the time. It was one of the more glaring lexical gaps in English.
    (The other one, off the top of my head, is the lack of an opposite of “loud”.)

    I didn’t start using ‘hopefully’ until I lived in Germany


  41. A. Crown says


  42. David Marjanović says

    Can you apply “soft” to the nerve-wracking humming of a mosquito?

  43. Jonathan says

    “Will you be coming to the picnic?” she asked, looking up at him hopefully.
    Perfectly obvious what that means. I have no idea what the preson who objected to manner hopefully meant.
    Of course this doesn’t change the fact that sentence hopefully is much more usual, at least nowadays.

  44. peter desmond says

    i was pleased to see the analogy made with arabic “inshallah” (also used in french) and “magari” (which i didn’t know was used both in italian and greek — the italian occupation of Rhodes?). to these i would add spanish “si dios quiere,” which like “inshallah” (and ojala’, its spanish derivative) also mentions god. it’s always struck me that “hopefully” is a secular word, in contrast. so i like using it. 🙂

  45. Can you apply “soft” to the nerve-wracking humming of a mosquito?
    (Author immigrated at age 8 from Tuscany, but there is nothing especially alien sounding.)
    Are you thinking that the English connotations don’t relate to dB levels quite as nicely as in other languages?
    “Louder” and “softer” really is how volume knobs are explained in user manuals that no one reads.

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