by Dave


Hopefully I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.


I hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

It is my hope that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.

I live hopefully knowing that it may come to pass that I’ll be able to eat some ice cream tomorrow.


What’s wrong with the problem sentence above? Let’s see what the internet has to say:

Everyone uses “hopefully” as a shortcut for “I hope.” It is not. Yes, the dictionary allows it, but that’s just bending to popular usage. In my book, there is only one correct use for “hopefully.” It’s a synonym for “prayerfully”—as in, “She looked up hopefully and said, ‘Dear Lord, please make it rain soon, or we’ll have no harvest.'” Do you want to say “I hope”? Then say “I hope.”

This quote comes from an essay by Jesse Kornbluth, founder of HeadButler.com. Jesse is a journalist, a writer, a contributor to several magazines (their titles don’t matter—they’re magazines), and the holder of a BA in English from Harvard. He is not, however, a linguist.

The funny thing about non-linguists is that they fall into two categories: regular folk, and grammarians. Both camps know next to nothing about language that instinct hasn’t taught them, but what distinguishes grammarians is that they insist (stridently? Sure, why not: stridently) that they know more about language than both regular folk and linguists.

The case of “hopefully” is a fine example. If you break it down (ooh, morphemically! Ha. Take that, Marantz!), what you get is “hope”, a verb, which means what it means (to believe, falsely, that one’s thoughts and silent protestations are able to effect some sort of change in the world [note that it need not be in the future, e.g. “I hope he got home okay.” That subtle distinction—in this case, the difference between the deontic and epistemic use of “hope”—is something the grammarian usually fails to pick up on (or have a name for, for that matter)]), followed by the suffix “-ful” (no longer spelled “-full”, even though its etymology is rather transparent), which indicates (metaphorically, mind you) that the modified noun is “full of” whatever is specified, the combination of which gives us the adjective “hopeful”: roughly, “to be full of hope”. To this is then added the handy “-ly” suffix (cognate to German “-lich”, which is cognate to English “like”, etc.) which makes an adverb out of the whole monstrosity, leaving us with a meaning something like “to act/behave in a manner that is characterized by being full of hope”, or perhaps something even more prolix that need not be written down.

The problem, then, is that as it is written in the problem sentence above, the word “hopefully” is devoid of content. Who’s doing what hopefully? Is it “I”, the subject? If it were, the literal meaning would be “Tomorrow, I will be able to eat ice cream, and I will be able to do so in a hopeful manner.” Given that meaning, it’s a bit odd that the adverb is preposed, but stranger things exist in print.

Unfortunately, there’s one little problem: That’s not what the sentence means. Instead, “hopefully” functions as an optative marker. In plain English (man, there’s an expression, if I’ve ever heard one!), what this means is that the word “hopefully” is there solely to indicate to the reader or listener that the content of the sentence is something that has not happened yet, but which the speaker wishes to happen. Some languages (Ancient Greek among them) encode this grammatically. English, though, at some point in time decided to borrow the word “hopefully” to fulfill the purpose, and it’s done a fine job ever since.

“N-now, just wait a minute, there!” cries Jesse K. Prescriptivist. “That’s not what the word means! You can’t do that!”

Jesse K., I gots two words for you: BOOOO HOOOO! Or, to put that in 1337: qq moar n00b.

Let’s examine the “logic” of the prescriptivist’s argument. “Everyone says x to mean y, but they ought not, because it means x.” Everyone, you say—even you? (I bet you do.) If that’s the case, by what authority can you claim that x means x and not y? The response is simple enough: “It used to mean x, and we have documented proof that it did.”

Okie doke. Let’s go with that. For fun, let’s take a look at another function adverb: “already.” Its etymology is pretty darn clear: it’s a combination of the words “all” and “ready”. In fact, you can see it acting as it ought in a sentence like, “Are you all ready?” (In this sentence, the subject is addressing multiple people.) Somehow or other, though, the two words got jammed together—respelled, too (they complain about “alright”, but not about “already”. Why, I wonder…?)—and the meaning was “corrupted”, so that now it’s used as a kind of emphatic completive marker (if you say “I ate”, surely it means that the action was completed some time in the past, but it simply doesn’t carry the force of “I ate already”).

I don’t see any grammarians claiming that “already” is an abomination any longer. Why? Presumably because its innovation predated their existence. Is that, then, the prerequisite for acceptance? Clearly the history of “they” being used as a singular third person pronoun contradicts this, but we’ll stick with it for now.

Logically, then, there’s but one thing to do: Wait for everyone who’s bothered by the optative usage of “hopefully” to die, and then we’ll have no more bother. If you’re a student, use “hopefully” to your heart’s content. If your teacher gives you trouble, send them here. If they still give you trouble, find a new class. Certain things you simply do not need.

But let’s back up a moment. Just how on Earth did “hopefully” come to be used as an optative marker, anyway?

What the grammarian probably did not notice in reading this write-up is that I’ve committed the exact same “error” with words other than “hopefully” several times already. Do a search for the word “unfortunately”, for example. Just what’s up with that? “Fortune” is chance; “fortunate” is an adjective used with a noun that has benefited by chance; “unfortunate” is the opposite (someone who’s been afflicted by bad luck, let’s say); “unfortunately”, then, is someone who has acted in a manner that can be characterized as unfortunate. If you take a look at that sentence, whose action is being characterized as unfortunate? No one’s? Then why is that sentence fine and a sentence beginning with “hopefully” wrong?

And it doesn’t end there. Consider: “Sadly, there is no more ice cream to be had.”

Or, “Happily, there’s an ice cream parlor just around the corner.”

Or, “Malheureusement, je ne sais pas le mot française pour ‘ice cream’.”

What’s going on here? Even the French betray “common sense”?!

Of course, that’s not what’s happening. What is happening is a process common to human languages everywhere. Specifically, an adverb’s meaning is being extended metaphorically to convey the attitude of the speaker. You might think of each adverb as modifying the phrase “I say”, in which case “hopefully” fits right in (think about it: “I say hopefully that I’ll be able to eat ice cream tomorrow”). Rarely does a speaker explicitly inform the hearer that they are in the process of speaking, though, so what the adverb modifies is an idea.

To put it bluntly, not only does complaining about the “misuse” of “hopefully” betray a general lack of understanding as to the nature of language, it is, to use the most insulting term available to an academic, misguided. Hopefully the grammarians of the world will come to understand this, but I’m not holding my breath.

If the use of “hopefully” as an optative marker saddens you, though, I sympathize. After all, there are tons of English speakers running around right now pronouncing “important” as if it were spelled “impordant” (it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me). But what is one to do? Innovations occur everyday in every language. Some innovations are quashed early on; some are picked up and become features of the language. One can try to predict what will catch on, or even serve as a guide, but ultimately, it’s out of our hands. If you’re feeling down, though, I recommend Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right. In Bierce, not only will you find a true prescriptivist (and a brilliant writer), but you’ll find someone who will criticize your own English (yes, even modern day “grammarians’”)! Did you know that “obnoxious” doesn’t mean “annoying”? Or that one ought not say “as for me” but “as to me”? No? Then go read Write It Right right away! You’ll either be horrified at how your own English has been corrupted, or you’ll come away with a better sense of just how language evolution works.

P.S.: Speaking of errors, Kornbluth, I was reading your article here, and was shocked to learn that J. D. Salinger had apparently written a short story I’d never read which shared a title with his 1961 novel Franny and Zooey! I was about to turn to Google to find out more, when I read on and saw that I was mistaken, and that, instead, you simply failed to correctly punctuate the title. Imagine my dismay! In case you hadn’t learned this one yet, the titles of shorter works (like short stories) are enclosed in quotation marks; the titles of longer works (like Salinger’s novel) are underlined (though thanks to the lazy newspaper industry, italics are also acceptable). Whoa, hey, did you hear that? That was the sound of you getting OWNED. That one was free. The rest will cost you.