The times, they are literally a-changin'

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Tom Chivers, "Sadly, Jamie Redknapp is literally correct", The Telegraph 3/12/2012; "Literally, a discussion about literally", BBC Radio 4 Today.

Earlier straws in the wind: Ben Masters, "Literally – the much misused word of the moment", The Guardian 1/29/2012; Norman Geras, "Literally", Normblog 1/30/2012.

Some LL background, mentioned in the Telegraph article: "Two Breakfast Experiments™: Literally", 3/8/2011; "They almost non-metaphorically never complain about this!", 3/6/2011. Some other LL background, not cited there: "Annals of Word Rage", 1/28/2011; "'… may literally be said …'", 3/6/2011; "Literally: A history", 11/1/2005. Arnold Zwicky has a comic strip and some history here.

In reference to the The Telegraph's headline, I note in passing that the people who object to the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb, modifying the attitude of the writer or speaker, do not seem to have any similar reaction to the analogous use of sadly.

Update — see also fev at Headsup; The Blog ("'It actually means something'", 3/12/2012) on a relevant recent rant at the National Review Online


  1. Merle said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    Sadly can qualify a sentence:

    Unexpectedly, he didn't turn up.
    It was unexpected that he didn't turn up.
    He didn't turn up, which was unexpected.

    Sadly, he couldn't make it.
    It is sad that he couldn't make it.
    He couldn't make it, which is sad.

    Probably he's too busy.
    It is probable that he's too busy.

    ?Hopefully, he will come next time.
    *It is hopeful that he will come next time.

    But what about gladly? According to Google, "it is glad that" is mostly used by Russian scam artists.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 9:18 am

    I agree with Merle's analysis. I have always wondered if "hopefully" was introduced into English as a translation of the German hoffentlich, and I have thought that *hopedly would have have more consistent with English grammar.

  3. AJD said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    The use of sadly isn't fully analogous to hopefully, since sad can be used to describe states of affairs ("it is sad that…") but hopeful can't.

    [(myl) "Can't"?

    … and their hopeful state of affairs to-day is a new proof of the wondrous political common sense of the American people … [Annual Reports of the Department of the Interior, 1901]

    … and a very hopeful state of affairs prevails in almost all the churches. [The Church at Home and Abroad, 1896]

    It is hopeful that now, at last, the great trading classes are bestirring themselves. [The Statist, 1883]

    And so on…]

  4. Richard Hershberger said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    "I have always wondered if "hopefully" was introduced into English as a translation of the German hoffentlich,"

    One of the early critics of sentence adverb "hopefully" (Wilson Follett, perhaps?) claimed just this. There is absolutely no evidence to support the assertion. The usage is an old one, though it only became common in the mid-20th century. He also failed to establish how, even were the claim true, it would be relevant.

    "he use of sadly isn't fully analogous to hopefully, since sad can be used to describe states of affairs ("it is sad that…") but hopeful can't."

    True, but irrelevant. The requirement that an adverb be able to describe states of affairs before it is eligible to be used as a sentence adverb is a post hoc argument which does not reflect actual English usage.

  5. Jonathon said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    The new American Heritage Dictionary has a very insightful note on hopefully: "It would seem, then, that it is not the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the Panel, since the comparable use of mercifully is acceptable to a large majority. Rather, hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage."

  6. KevinM said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Just to completely blow up the "nonmetaphorical" sense, some years ago the expression (in the US, at least) was often "literally and figuratively." Like "literally" standing alone, it was used as an all-purpose intensifier, and it didn't often make, er, literal sense.

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 1:52 pm

    I agree with Merle and Lubliner. I also agree with AJD’s statement that the use of sadly as a sentence adverb isn’t fully analogous to the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb: indeed I would go further and say that it isn’t analogous at all.

    Mark, you point out correctly that we can talk about hopeful states of affairs as well as sad states of affairs. But far from explaining the common usage of hopefully as a sentence adverb, your point highlights the problem with that usage. “Sadly, he couldn’t make it” means “He couldn’t make it, and that is a sad state of affairs.” If hopefully were analogous, then “Hopefully, he will recover” would mean “He will recover, and that is a hopeful state of affairs”. If hopefully were used analogously in that way, then I don’t think that prescriptivist qualms about its use would have developed. It is precisely because hopefully is used in a way that is not analogous – because it is used instead to mean “I hope he will recover” – that many people do not like it.

    As Coby Lubliner says, *hopedly would have been more consistent with (the rest of) English grammar. We have “It is alleged that he stole the money” or equivalently “Allegedly he stole the money”. We have “He is reputed to be the father of the child” or equivalently “Reputedly he is the father of the child.” Consistently we would have “It is hoped that he will recover” with an equivalent “*Hopedly, he will recover.” (But we haven’t, and I am not advocating such a usage!)

    I am neither attacking nor defending the usage of “Hopefully, he will recover” to mean “I hope he will recover”. In an attempt to be a good descriptivist, I will merely acknowledge that many (most?) people use it that way. But it is not at all analogous to “Sadly, he couldn’t make it.”

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    My <b> tag after the word “not” should be </b>.

  9. Rubrick said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    What's interesting about hopefully-prescriptivists is that by advocating it not be used as a sentence adverb, they're actually advocating it not be used at all, since (in modern English, anyway), it simply doesn't work as a standard verb-modifier. As Pinker vividly pointed out, "Hopefully, Michael Jordan stepped to the free-throw line" is pure fail.

  10. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

    @Rubrick: "Hopefully" doesn't work well as a standard verb-modifier when it begins the sentence. It works fine in other positions: "It's not too late for her to call," he added hopefully.

  11. Layra said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    I feel like the usage "sad state of affairs" is actually itself "non-analogous", in that the state of affairs is not what is sad, but that people are sad due to the state of affairs. The state of affairs can't feel emotion. So the term "sad state of affairs" tells us the emotions of someone associated.
    Hence the problem with "hopeful state of affairs" is the same problem with "sad state of affairs", in that the adjective isn't directly modifying the noun, only we don't consider "sad state of affairs" to be problematic.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    Mercifully, in the sense of "I feel about this as if it were an act of mercy on somebody's part," is the one that really grates on me. It's interesting that it doesn't bother the Usage Panel as much.

    Adverbs that strike me as closely analogous to hopefully are thankfully, gratefully, and certainly. "She certainly called" = "I am certain that she called." "Hopefully, she will call" = "I am hopeful that she will call." I don't especially like those senses of thankfully and gratefully, but I have no objection at all to that sense of certainly, and I've never heard of anyone who does.

  13. Rubrick said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

    @Jon Weinberg

    You make a good point, but actually it's not just sentence-initial position causing the problem; "Michael Jordan hopefully stepped to the free-throw line" is no better.

    However, "Michael Jordan stepped hopefully to the free-throw line" works okay, so it seems to function in post-position but not pre-.

    This makes me wonder what other adverbs are finicky that way.

  14. Theodoric said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    I don't know it it's related to Hoffentlich, but 'hopefully' is even more similar to Dutch 'hopelijk', and it's used in the exact same way. Looking at the abuse of punctuation and the use of the 'u' as a pronoun, Dutch has the tendency to fully accept things that are considered abominations in the English language. ;)

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

    @Layra: Actually the word sad has its primary meaning in sad state of affairs and a secondary meaning in feeling sad. Sad meant serious or grave for many centuries before it came to mean a feeling. If mankind became extinct, that would be a sad state of affairs even though there would be nobody to feel sad about it.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

    @Eric P Smith: You seem to be using "primary" and "secondary" as chronological terms. That is hardly relevant to today's speakers. Would the sense in sad state of affairs still be primary if it became obsolete?

    My occasional substitute for "hopefully" was "hopeably", but I've yielded to the shift in sense, with relief.

  17. Ø said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    It may not be quite idiomatic to speak of a hopeful state of affairs. (I personally think it's well within bounds. And I also think that the fact that "a sad state" sounds so right does owe something to the older sense of "sad" that Eric P Smith pointed to.)

    But surely one can speak of a hopeful development.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    @Mark Mandel: Thank you. I am constantly being reminded of how old-fashioned my take on language is. I had in mind the chronological use, but not only the chronological use. To me, the primary meaning of sad is still not about people’s feelings. The older use is native to me. When I say “a sad accident”, or “a sad mess”, or “a sad duty”, or “come to a sad end”, or “a sad state” or a “sad mistake”, I don’t say it because people feel sad about these things: on the contrary, for me, people feel sad about these things because the things are sad. It was a surprise to me that for Layra it was the other way round. No doubt the large majority nowadays is with Layra.

    If the sense of sad in a sad state of affairs became obsolete then, no, it would no longer be primary. But it would be a sad state of affairs.

    I’ll bow out now. I’m hijacking this thread and I don’t mean to.

  19. Nelson said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman: But can't "certainly" also be interpreted as an ordinary adverb in this context? "Certainly, she called" = "She certainly called" (It is certain that she called). So people with the traditional interpretation wouldn't have an issue with it. However, "Hopefully, she called" isn't the same as "She called hopefully". But this kind of ambiguity might be why some people use sentence adverbs to refer to the speaker's state rather than the action's, as with "Hopefully" and "Mercifully".

  20. Bob Ladd said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 2:59 am

    Those who won't accept the argument based on sadly (e.g. Merle in the very first comment above) will have a harder time refuting an argument based on sentence-adverb happily. So to refashion Merle's examples:

    Happily, he will come next time.
    *It is happy that he will come next time.

    If Merle and others reject sentence-adverb hopefully on the basis that you can't say It is hopeful that he will come next time, they should be similarly concerned about sentence-adverb happily. But I don't know of any campaigns against happily, only hopefully. The judgement from the American Heritage Dictionary quoted by Jonathon above is right on the money.

    If you have access to JSTOR, Stan Whitley had a nice article on the development of the hopefully shibboleth in American Speech in 1983.

    [(myl) It's clear, I think, that attempts at logical reconstruction of anti-hopefully feelings are post-hoc rationalizations. The real driving force seems to be the apprehension of (a real) change:

    …fed into the random process of peever shibboleth-formation.]

  21. Ø said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 9:00 am

    The story of "happy" is parallel, in a way, with the story of "sad": the older sense in which it basically means "fortunate" is having some effect here, isn't it?

    In the case of "a sorry state", there is no adverb available to quibble about.

  22. BZ said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    Actually, "Happily, he will come next time." is the only one of the discussed sentences that sounds wrong to me. I can only construe this as an awkward version of "He will be happy to come next time". Interestingly, "Sadly, he will come next time" is unremarkable to me.

  23. Mark F. said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    Literally every comment has been about a completely different topic than the post.

  24. John G said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    There are dozens if not scores of adverbs that sometimes describe the emotional state or opinion of the narrator of the statement to which they attach, and sometimes describe the emotional state or opinion of a person about whom the statement is made. 'hopefully' is one of them. Others include (un)fortunately, sadly, luckily… fill in the blanks.

    I think a 'sad state of affairs' is ambiguous about whether the person making the judgment about the state of affairs is personally sad or just considers the state of affairs negatively. Compare 'sorry state of affairs' – the person so describing it is probably not apologizing.

  25. Ulrich Flemming said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    here's my favorite example for the use of "hopefully" as a verb modifier (from a James Bond novel): "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive."

    Re. "Hoffentlich" in German: One should remember that German has a different word when a verb is to be modified, "hoffnungsvoll" (full of hope). And the two words are functionally distinct, i.e. cannot be substituted for each other.

  26. Ulrich Flemming said,

    March 15, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    By my last sentence, I mean that if you substitute, you change the meaning:
    "Er fährt hoffentlich …." –He travels, I hope,….
    "Er fährt hoffnungsvoll…"–He travers füll of hope…

  27. JK said,

    March 24, 2012 @ 9:21 am

    “There is absolutely no evidence to support the assertion. The usage is an old one, though it only became common in the mid-20th century.”
    If the second sentence is meant to support the first one, how is the age of that usage relevant to its origins? It wouldn't occur to me that English was significantly more isolated from German and Dutch influence in earlier times.

  28. Michael Straight said,

    May 31, 2012 @ 2:50 am

    "I think we're going to make it, James. But what if the party is disappointing?"

    "Hopefully, we'll have found it even better to travel hopefully than to arrive."

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