Hopefully Yours

Is “full of hope” full of it?

“Hopefully,” Americans have been watching the first overseas visit of President Barack Obama.

Those Americans who were taught English and grammar between the 1960s and 1980s have probably been watching “in a hopeful manner.” Those who were taught at other times have probably been thinking that “it is hoped” others were watching.

“Hopefully” spurs discussions that, like those about the serial comma, can quickly degenerate into shouting matches.

But “hopefully” everyone will calm down.

When “hopefully” is used to mean “I really hope so,” it is functioning as a sentence adverb or “disjunct,” which adds the writer’s opinion to the statement in the sentence. It modifies the sentence “Americans have been watching …” to mean “It is hoped that Americans have been watching …”

That usage became popular in the ’60s, only to be decried by traditionalists who “hoped” that they could stem the tide by teaching a couple of generations that sentence adverbs in general were bad, and “hopefully” was the worst of the lot. They continued to insist that “hopefully” could be used only as a plain-vanilla “ly” adverb, modifying “hopeful” the way “slowly” means “in a slow manner.”

The lynch mob included such revered figures as Ted Bernstein in The Careful Writer (“What is needed is a word like hopably, which is not here being nominated for the job”) and E.B. White in his revision to The Elements of Style (“Do not dress up words by adding ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse”).

They were “hoping” against “hope.” White wrote to an editor at Macmillan in 1970: “I regard the word ‘hopefully’ as beyond recall. I’m afraid it’s here to stay, like pollution and sex and death and taxes.” In 1977 Bernstein wrote that “a decade ago I was on the side of the objectors, but in recent years additional thought about the matter has changed my mind.”

Too late. Schoolteachers learned to scorn “hopefully,” and their charges followed. Among those legions are the Associated Press Stylebook, which warns, “Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, not surprisingly, barred the supposed misuse of “hopefully” during the Bernstein era. But the stylebook wasn’t revised until twenty-two years after Bernstein had changed his mind, and even then there was not wholehearted acceptance: “In the sense of let us hope, this adverb inflames passions,” the entry now reads, even though that usage is “approved by most dictionaries and usage manuals.” Still, “traditionalists insist that hopefully can be used only to mean in a hopeful manner. … In surveys of skillful writers and teachers, large majorities cling to the restriction. So writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck.”

Lotsa luck on that. “Hopefully” is now standard English in all but the most “hopelessly” strict usage guides, and “hopefully” those few will soon join White and Bernstein.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.