The Rare Correct Use of the Word "Hopefully"

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In reading Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children, I came across this sentence, in which a woman offers a positive comment about Madame Bovary after a woman in her book club attacks it: 

"'There's a lot of good descriptive writing,' she said hopefully."

misuse of the word "hopefully""Hopefully" is one of those words that's almost never used correctly. Most of the time it's employed to mean "It is to be hoped," as in "Hopefully it won't rain tomorrow." But it's an adverb. It should modify a verb. She sighed hopefully. He looked hopefully into the distance.

Bill Bryson points out in Troublesome Words that "those writers who scrupulously avoid hopefully do not hesitate to use at least a dozen other words - 'apparently', 'presumably', 'happily', 'sadly', 'mercifully', 'thankfully' and many others - in precisely the same way." But he goes on to deplore the word's misuse for its ambiguity and lameness. gives "it is to be hoped" as the second definition. To borrow a rebuttal from George Carlin on a similar point - there's a reason it's second: because it's not first!

Language evolves, and I have no problem with that. Bryson wrote the book Made in America specifically about how the English language evolved in the United States, and it's a vivid, informative and entertaining read that helps boost appreciation for how valuable it is that words change in meaning and function over time and in different circumstances. With English having no regulatory body, like French or Spanish, these changes happen organically, and against the indignant but ultimately faint and ineffectual protests of purists and pedants. 

A few years ago a friend used the word "whence" in an email, without prefacing it with "from" and defended that usage before I had a chance to point out the error. "Whence," it turns out, means "from." correct use of "whence""From whence" is redundant. Since finding that out I've read "whence" on its own in at least a dozen books, many of them novels. It must have been there all the years I thought the expression "from whence" was correct. Why hadn't I noticed it? (Maybe it was internally altered by the same auto-correct function the brain has that can let your eyes pass over a simple error in your own writing dozens of times without picking it up)(have you spotted one in this article yet?) And how correct is it when it's only used correctly by the tiniest minority - and pretty much only when written, not spoken? 

"Hopefully" is used so frequently and almost universally in its newer and technically incorrect meaning that to read it or hear it used correctly has become worth noting. I still strive to use it properly, even though no one notices or cares. Same with "whence." And I do commonly take grammatical liberties by using fragments as full sentences. For effect. And rhythm. Learned that from JP Donleavy. But I'll be damned if I stop being scrupulous enough to differentiate "there," "their" and "they're," or start pluralizing with an apostrophe s. And I'll shoot myself in the head before I start trying to get across that I'm kidding by ending a sentence with an emoticon.

Maybe there are a couple of language buffs out there who'll appreciate it, I conclude hopefully.

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  • Comment Link Lindsay Robertson Thursday, 14 April 2011 23:27 posted by Lindsay Robertson

    Hopefully, you're not really that big of a word snob ;)

  • Comment Link Grandpa Olaf Thursday, 04 August 2011 19:04 posted by Grandpa Olaf

    Looking for answers on whence, I certainly enjoyed the additional lesson on hopefully. I know better but am certainly guilty of the misuse of this and other adverbs.

  • Comment Link Christine Lee Wednesday, 28 September 2011 04:48 posted by Christine Lee

    Good for you! I constantly correct those who use the word "hopefully" wrong, as well as "lie down" vs. "lay down,"insure" vs. "ensure," "it's" vs. "its." It's not being a snob, it's showing respect for the English language and its proper use. Those who have the intellectual capacity will appreciate what you share.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 28 September 2011 17:01 posted by TJ Dawe

    thanks Christine. But what's the difference between lie down and lay down? that one's new to me.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 28 September 2011 17:02 posted by TJ Dawe

    By the way, if you don't know of him, Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who regularly broadcasts short segments on NPR. I'm a fan.

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