o travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive." Seventy or eighty years ago that sentence by Robert Louis Stevenson would have suggested only one interpretation: that it is better to travel filled with hope than to actually reach your destination. Today, however, it could also be read as meaning "to travel is, I hope, better than to arrive."

This extended sense of hopefully has been condemned with some passion by many authorities, among them Philip Howard, who calls it "ambiguous and obscure, as well as illiterate and ugly." Many others, notably Bernstein and Gowers, accept it, though usually only grudgingly and often with restrictions attached.

Most of those who object to hopefully in its looser sense do so on the argument that it is a misused modal auxiliary --- that is to say, that it falls to modify the elements it should. Take the sentence "Hopefully the sun will come out soon." As constructed, this sentence suggests (at least to a literal-minded person) that it is the sun whose manner is hopeful, not yours or mine. After all, you would hardly say, "Believably the sun will come out soon" if you believed it might, or "Thinkingly the sun will come out soon" if you thought as much.

The shortcoming of this argument is that those writers who scrupulously avoid hopefully in such constructions do not hesitate to use at least a dozen other words --- apparently, presumably, happily, sadly, mercifully, thankfully, and so on --- in precisely the same way. In Paradigms Lost, the American critic John Simon roundly disdained the looser hopefully, yet elsewhere he wrote, "Marshall Sahlins, who professes anthropology at the University of Chicago, errs some fifteen times in an admittedly long piece." That admittedly is every bit as unattached as any hopefully ever was.

o accept the one while excusing the other is, I submit, curious and illogical and more than a little reminiscent of those Victorian purists who insisted that laughable should be laughat-able and that grammatical virtue would be served by turning reliable into relionable.

There are, however, two other grounds for regarding the unattached hopefully with suspicion. The first is that, as in the Stevenson quotation at the beginning of this entry, it introduces a possibility of ambiguity. Gowers cites this sentence in reference to a cricket match: "Our team will start their innings hopefully immediately after tea." It isn't possible to say whether hopefully refers to the team's frame of mind or to the time it will start batting.

A second objection is to the lameness of the word. If a newspaper editorial says, "Hopefully the actors' strike will end today," who exactly is doing the hoping? The writer? The actors? All right-minded people? Too often the word is used as no more than an easy escape from taking direct responsibility for a sentiment and as such is better avoided.

--- From Bryson's Dictionary of
Troublesome Words

Bill Bryson
©2002, Broadway Books
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