Grammar Wednesday

A day late is better than never…

A few weeks ago, Organic Mama, being a native English speaker of the Canadian variety, confronted me with the very United States American practice of starting a sentence with the adverb “hopefully.”

“Why do you do that?” she asked, “the adverb isn’t actually modifying anything in the sentence. It doesn’t make sense!”

I said something akin to, “WELCOME TO THE USA!! Exactly where on your citizenship application did it disclose that we always make sense?”

Once I got past my snarky response (trust me; she’d have worried if I didn’t say something wise-assed and sarcastic), I started to really ponder the question. It’s a good one. O’Mama is right – when we say something like:

“Hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade.”

it’s clear to see that the adverb isn’t really modifying anything in the sentence. Even if we rearrange the words and say:

“The rain will, hopefully, hold off until after the parade.”

we’re still not modifying anything in the sentence with the adverb; the rain isn’t hopeful, and neither is the holding 0ff of said rain. It’s obvious to native U.S.A American speakers that the “hopefully” in these sentences is expressing the speaker’s (or writer’s) wish, but strictly speaking, the adverb is misplaced in the sentence.

My thinking about this led to the consideration of a bunch of other adverbs that we commonly use to start sentences:

Thankfully, there was someone there to unlock the gate when we arrived.

Clearly, you should get a couple of dancing lessons before you go to the audition.

There are, obviously, a number of reasons why you should consider skipping dessert.

In my above sentences, no one in the first was thankful, nothing in the second was clear and while the reasons may be obvious, obviously is not an adjective. This led me to thinking about how we close letters, as well: I end my correspondence most often with “warmly,” and I’ve seen people write “sincerely” or “affectionately,” as well.

My final analysis (though I hope it goes without saying that, for me, no analysis is ever final) is that these words are used to convey tone and mood rather than to modify a specific element of the sentence. When I say that “hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade,” I am expressing my wish that it do so – I’m adding a layer of meaning to the sentence, and to my intention for speaking or writing it – by my inclusion of that adverb, just as closing a letter with “warmly” conveys to my reader my affection and kindness toward them.  At least, I am hopeful* that my closing leaves my readers with those feelings…

Does this make any sense?

Thank you for your patience in letting me turn in my Grammar Wednesday a little late, by the way. We had a VERY successful trip to IKEA so, for me, it was worth the wait.

Happy Thursday, Everyone!



*didja catch that?  Tricky, aren’t I?



Filed under Grammar

18 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. “hopefully” is on pages 512-513 of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage which is now thankfully available online. As a sentence modifier it arose c 1930 in the US. As you note it’s no different than “clearly” or “thankfully” as sentence modifiers.

    I wouldn’t say that it is misplaced in the second sentence; it’s no different than “The rain will, clearly, hold off until after the parade.”

  2. Oh great! Now you’re going to tell me I can’t use “y’all” aren’t you? Darn dialects…

  3. wordlily

    I had an English prof who argued convincingly for y’all being quite proper, actually, if not formal. The language would benefit from a plural ‘you.’

  4. So, John, aside from the “misplaced” bit, you agree with my assessment of this grammatical situation?

    ‘Bugs, I would NEVER tell you not to use y’all (except, you know, on your resume or something). Honestly, I’m as New England as they come, but I think I’ve been hanging out with Bo and SaintSeester too long – y’all has crept into my blog vocabulary (though not, strangely, in my spoken one…)

    Lily, I agree – though I think that less important than a plural ‘you’ (which, really, we already have) would be a gender-neutral third person pronoun. Saying “one” all the time makes me sound like more of a pedantic snob than I already am!

  5. mrschili, I think your assessment is “this is a normal usage,” and I agree with that.

    But we probably don’t agree on the gender-neutral 3rd person pronoun, since I think we’ve had one for 500 years – “they”.

  6. This may sound a bit geeky, but I was recently thinking of writing a styleguide for my blog, in which I was going to say things like ‘they’ is acceptably a neutral third-person singular subject pronoun and words like ‘hopefully’ may modify entire sentences, thereby conveying the speaker/writer’s tone toward the content, rather than having to endow any given sentence-internal entity with any such hope. You beat me to it.

  7. HA! It’s okay, Jangari – we love “geeky” around here!

    John, maybe I misspoke – I think I meant that we need a gender-neutral third person SINGULAR pronoun. Now that I think of it, I’m sure that’s what I meant. It gets tedious, in our P.C. world, to write “s/he” all the time – and it sounds stiff and formal to write “one.”

  8. I love the “hopeful” that you slipped in because I was modifying all the sentences to say things like “I hope the rain will hold off” and “I am thankful that it did.”

  9. Interestingly, I never noticed that particular grammar quirk before.


  10. Organic Mama

    As I morphed from Canadian to American language usage (really, not that different) (well, there IS that EH thing) (and perhaps some colourful spelling differences), I brought things with me I’d been saying all my life, hopefully included. What prompted my query and my frustration with hopefully as a sentence modifier is that it sounded not specific enough and that it was so bloody overused! Thank you for the explanation, all of you.
    Now as for the gender (in this case, not so neutral)-neutral, third person singular pronoun, yesterday Xena mentioned she jokingly uses “shemale!”

  11. I like y’all. Of course, Chili, I’m sure you’ve heard “y’all’ll,” which is the contraction of “y’all will.” Perfectly acceptable in the American Southwest.

  12. “they” is a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. “Who makes you their confidant”, etc. MWDEU pages 901-903.

  13. Yes, John, but it still sounds odd, if not downright obnoxious to my ears, to hear someone say, “If a student comes late to school, they need to get a pass from the office.” Puhleeze! It’s much better to call the one student a “he” or a “she” instead of a “they.”

  14. Well you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. I’m just saying that it isn’t ungrammatical. It’s a solution to the problem of a common-gender 3rd person singular, and it has been preferred by many good writers for the past 500 years.

  15. “They” is far too bland, and almost insulting at its insinuation that, rather than have a particular gender at all, one must have no gender. I prefer “s/he.”

  16. Thanks for another great lesson. You really help me shape up my English (hopefully :–)

    I am still struggeling with ‘that’ and ‘which’, maybe something for an upcoming lesson?

  17. I agree, ‘Bugs, and I use s/he whenever I can. The problem comes with the third person OBJECTIVE pronouns – him and her – that can’t be conveniently slashed.

    Frumteacher, watch this space – I’ll tackle your question next week!

  18. What about, uh, “him/er” or the opposite “her/im?” Sounds an awful lot like harem, but who’s counting?

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