Myth Buster: Never Start a Sentence with “Hopefully”

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Hopefully, you will benefit from this blog post.

Does that sentence raise your hackles? Work you into a tizzy? Light your fuse? Surprisingly, it does a lot of people¹.

This use of the hopefully is considered a no-no by a large contingent of prescriptive grammarians, and I’d like to explain why and offer my humble perspective on it.

One way the concern is expressed is that hopefully is an adverb — a word that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb — and that doesn’t seem to be the case in this sentence. It’s not saying you will benefit in a hopeful way. Therefore, this usage is incorrect, right?

Wrong. It’s an example of what is known as a sentence adverb — an adverb that, rather than modifying a single word, modifies the sentence as a whole. Sentence adverbs are common. Here are some examples:

  • Incredibly, Ed arrived on time.
  • Regretfully, I will not be able to attend the party.
  • Ideally, you will end up with an even number.

Notice that these initial adverbs do not modify the verb of the sentence. They modify the sentence as a whole. The fact that Ed arrived on time is what is incredible. The speaker is regretful about not being able to attend the party. Ending up with an even number is what is ideal. So why doesn’t anyone complain about all adverbs used like this?²

I’m not sure, really. I suspect it’s because this way of using hopefully is particularly common and, therefore, to some people, particularly annoying.

Another explanation I’ve heard is that hopefully means “in a hopeful way” but used this way it means “I am hopeful that,” or “It is hoped” and is therefore a misuse. But dictionaries now include “it is hoped” as an alternate definition for hopefully. And certainly, it’s been used in this sense for a long time. No one is confused about my meaning if I say, “Hopefully, Michael Vick survives the season without an injury.”

Yeah, But…

Now that I’ve defended the sentence adverb use of hopefully, I’m going to suggest that you avoid using it in formal writing. I hate doing that because it feels like surrendering to the unreasonable demands of grammar snobs. If you are the pugnacious type, by all means go for it, but personally, I’m willing to let this one go. After all, it’s just as easy and somewhat more clear to say “I hope Michael Vick survives the season uninjured.” I don’t feel like I am compromising anything stylistically, and I will avoid raising the ire of the grammatical nitpickers.

Here’s what I’m saying: There’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with the sentence adverb hopefully, but you’re probably better off not doing it.

Hopefully, I’ve made myself clear³.

*****

¹See what I did there?

²Okay, some do. I’ve heard from more than one person that they had been clearly taught never to start a sentence with any kind of adverb. That, however, is a silly, indefensible, invented rule. There’s no justifiable reason to insist on it.

³Yup. I did it again. 🙂

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Will
    Will10-02-2013

    I found your footnotes pretty amusing.

  2. Gavin Stewart
    Gavin Stewart10-02-2013

    Totally agree, although I had never before heard of a sentence adjective. Having written all my life, which has been longish, so far, and seems destined to continue a while yet, I have concluded that clarity comes first and then the language as spoken. So when the grammarians can help achieve clarity, we should listen to them, otherwise we should listen to the language that people speak. And “hopefully” pops up often enough at the beginning of spoken sentences to make it an acceptable usage; so does “and”, and we were taught never to start a sentence with “and”.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-02-2013

      I’ve addressed starting sentences with “and” before too, Gavin. For people who insist that starting with “and” is an error, I like to direct them to the first chapter of the Bible. In the English Standard Version, 43 of the first 53 sentences in Genesis 1 start with “And.”

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