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Modifying an Entire Sentence or Clause

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Use of Hopefully to Start a Sentence

This discussion will undoubtedly get some readers’ noses out of joint, because it points out that starting a sentence with the word hopefully is acceptable under modern theories of style. But watch out, many readers will think less of you if you start sentences with hopefully. So let’s review the problem. Then you can decide whether to start a sentence with the term or not.

Consider what this expression means, if the adverb is taken to modify the verb in the sentence:

Quickly, Igor will run across the field.

The adverb describes the verb. When Igor runs across the field, he’ll run quickly. Right? Now consider this sentence:

Hopefully, Igor will run across the field.

How can Igor run hopefully? Answer: He can’t. Thus, you can see why many grammarians have a hissy fit when they see or hear sentences beginning with the adverb hopefully. Instead, the traditional grammarian would say:

One hopes that Igor will run across the field. It is to be hoped that Igor will run across the field. Igor, one hopes, will run across the field.

According to grammarians, one just cannot run hopefully. And they’re right.

But what did Amber mean when she said, Hopefully, Igor will run across the field? She meant that she herself hoped that Igor will run across the field. The word hopefully describes the speaker or the writer or a generic one out there somewhere. It does not, in the speaker’s view, describe the verb in the sentence. Instead, it sums up the entire sentence.

Views of Top Authorities

Adverbs do have this ability to modify entire sentences. When they do, they’re appropriately called sentence adverbs. According to top authorities, adverbs, including those ending in ‑ly, can modify entire sentences. New Fowler for example, lists examples of sentences starting with an ‑ly adverb followed by a comma (New Fowler, p. 702):

Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which justice can be secured. Agreeably, he asked me my name and where I lived. Frankly, I do not wish to stop them.

The sources of these passages? T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935), a 1987 issue of The New Yorker, and Brian Moore’s The Colour of Blood (1987).

According to Mr. Burchfield, the editor of New Fowler, the ‑ly adverbs that modify entire sentences include, among others, actually, basically, frankly, hopefully, regretfully, strictly, and thankfully. He describes the “swift and immoderate increase in the currency of ‑ly adverbs used to qualify a predication or assertion as a whole.” But he goes on to point out that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use back to 1644. New Fowler, p. 702.

In Garner Legal, the author urges lawyers to avoid the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb:

[T]he word received so much negative attention in the 1970s and 1980s that many writers have blacklisted it, so using it at all today is a precarious venture. Garner Legal, p. 409.

In Garner Oxford, however, the author writes:

[T]he battle is now over. Hopefully is now a part of American English . . . . Garner Oxford, p. 172.

But he cautions writers to consider their audiences:

[A]nyone using it in the new sense is likely to have a credibility problem with some readers . . . . Garner Oxford, p. 172.

This war will continue to rage, no doubt. You should choose and use hopefully when you write for readers in many settings. After all, you have New Fowler, Oxford English Dictionary, and Garner Oxford on your side. But if your audience tends to scowl at new-fangled expressions, one hopes you will avoid using hopefully as an adverb beginning a sentence.

 

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