Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wood Writing Guide: Hopefully

What's the deal with the word "hopefully"? Chances are you never thought much about it, but the word, which seems so optimistic, is mired in controversy. When can you properly use it? Well, it depends on whom you ask. But its most common use, saying something like "it is hoped," draws clucks from many would-be purists. Just to clarify, here's a potentially offending phrase:
Hopefully you read Geoffrey K. Pullum's evisceration of The Elements of Style.
Write something like that, and you may get eviscerated! In his post about sentence-adverbs [link], Richard Nordquist recalls that NBC correspondent Edwin Newman supposedly hung a sign in his office warning wayward writers, "Abandon Hopefully All Ye Who Enter Here." Strunk and White also heaped vitriol on any usage of "hopefully" not referring to acting or feeling "in a hopeful manner." They'd prefer something like the following:
Expecting to purify myself of wordy prose, I read The Elements of Style hopefully.
This articulation does indeed deliver a lovely sentiment, while the more common usage suggests wishy-washyness, if not outright incorrectness.
Hopefully I'll get to the point of this post, but, really, you never know.
So I turned to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary. After all, why would a dictionary lie to a person? Turns out, there are two correct uses of "hopefully." The first and oldest, "in a hopeful manner," is followed by a second acceptable usage, "it is hoped" (though the OED cautions that this usage originated in the United States and is "[a]voided by many writers").

I choose to continue using the word in both its meanings. "Hopefully" may have entered the lexicon "in a hopeful manner," but the word has evolved to convey a message that, despite its indecisive nature, sometimes makes its point most efficiently.

If I had one preference, though, it's that we could relax on using "hopefully" by accepting a more rigid rule for commas. Consider the following options:
Hopefully, I will attend the funeral.
Hopefully I will attend the funeral.
I think it's reasonable to rely upon comma placement to interpret both sentences. The first example's comma adds sufficient pause to suggest a degree of irony ("I go to the funeral with a hopeful attitude"). The second example's lack of comma can then communicate a default meaning ("It is hoped that I will show up"). Commas can be handy that way, as long as they're used consistently.

Even so, given that we lack common agreement on comma usage, I conclude with the OED: "Hopefully" is OK, so long as it communicates your intention without undue confusion.

Hopefully you'll agree.

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