Hopefully, You’ll Learn Something from This Post

Or, to be more correct, the title should read “I hope you will learn something from this post.”

Back in the 1600s, this word hopefully was first used in the English language to denote “something that is done in a hopeful manner.” As in: “She hopefully gazed out the tower window for her prince to come rescue her.”

About a hundred years later, someone decided it would be a good idea to use the word in a different way: “Hopefully, the war will be over soon.” The word hopefully, in this case, is little more than a substitute for “I hope.”

This sense of the word didn’t really catch on in common usage until somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century, but by the 1960s it was firmly entrenched in the English lexicon. While not technically grammatically incorrect (it fits into a class of adverbs called disjuncts), it does sometimes present a bit of a problem. Consider this example:

  • Hopefully, my sister’s ankle will heal in time for her to go to the skating party.

For most of us, it’s not that difficult to parse the sentence and identify the origin of the well-wishing—the speaker him/herself, right? But consider the fact that the speaker’s sister most certainly is wishing the same thing. So, does the “hopefully” apply to the speaker, or to the sister, or to both? See how much clearer it would be to just say “I hope,” if indeed the healing was hoped for by the speaker?

Worded another way, the sentence (and the usage of hopefully) becomes even more ambiguous:

  • My sister’s ankle will hopefully heal in time for her to go to the skating party.

This sentence is grammatically just as correct as the previous one, and it contains all the same words, but it becomes even more difficult to parse. It is worded in such a way that it almost seems, at first glance, that the hopefully could be referring to the ankle itself. Ankles, of course, do not have the cognitive power to hope; therefore, that interpretation just isn’t possible, although it is implied by the wording.

Again, it would have been so much less problematic to just say “I hope,” since that’s what was probably meant by saying “hopefully” in that sentence, anyway. Doing so only adds one more word, but it cuts out an “ly” word, and it aids in clearing up sentence ambiguity.  And the main goal of all your writing should be clarity above all else. I hope that this discussion clears up any confusion over the use of the word hopefully!

3 Responses to “Hopefully, You’ll Learn Something from This Post”

  1. Barbara McDowell Whitt January 10, 2014 at 11:07 am #

    “Hopefully, my sister’s ankle will heal in time for her to go to the skating party.” Is the speaker hoping this, or the sister hoping this? (Or are the other party goers hoping this?) I agree that a simple “I hope…” is a more (succinct and) meaningful way to say (write) the sentence.

  2. Peter Dudley January 10, 2014 at 10:40 pm #

    “Ankles, of course, do not have the cognitive power to hope”

    I have been saying this for YEARS, but has anyone listened? No! Ankles are given way too much credit by most people.

  3. Voni Harris January 15, 2014 at 12:22 pm #

    So funny! My daughter just now brought this question to me as she practiced for her SAT. I just pulled up your hopeful post.

    🙂

    Blessings,
    Voni

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