What Is a Sentence Adverb?

Frequently Asked Questions About English Grammar

Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose (Random House, 2001).

The sentence adverb has served a useful function in English since the 14th century. In the past few decades, however, one sentence adverb in particular has come in for a lot of criticism. Here we'll look at some examples of sentence adverbs and consider what--if anything--is wrong with the ever-optimistic adverb hopefully.

The first word in each of the following sentences is called (among other names) a sentence adverb:

  • "Ideally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to discover his own."
    (Mark Twain)
  • "Ironically, women who acquire power are more likely to be criticized for it than are the men who have always had it."
    (Carolyn Heilbrun)
  • "Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates."
    (Gore Vidal)
  • "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living."
    (Miriam Beard Vagts)

Unlike an ordinary adverb--which is conventionally defined as a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb--a sentence adverb modifies a sentence as a whole or a clause within a sentence.

Dozens of words can be used as sentence adverbs, among them actually, apparently, basically, briefly, certainly, clearly, conceivably, confidentially, curiously, evidently, fortunately, hopefully, however, ideally, incidentally, indeed, interestingly, ironically, naturally, predictably, presumably, regrettably, seriously, strangely, surprisingly, thankfully, theoretically, therefore, truthfully, ultimately, and wisely.

Hopefully--The Troublesome Sentence Adverb

Curiously, one (and only one) of these sentence adverbs has been subjected to virulent attacks: hopefully.

For decades now self-appointed grammar mavens have railed against the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb. It has been called a "bastard adverb," "slack-jawed, common, sleazy," and a specimen of "popular jargon at its most illiterate level." The author Jean Stafford once posted a sign on her door threatening "humiliation" to anyone who misused hopefully in her house.

And language fussbudget Edwin Newman reputedly had a sign in his office that said "Abandon Hopefully All Ye Who Enter Here."

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White get downright tetchy on the subject:

This once-useful adverb meaning "with hope" has been distorted and is now widely used to mean "I hope" or "it is to be hoped." Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly. To say, "Hopefully, I'll leave on the noon plane" is to talk nonsense. Do you mean you'll leave on the noon plane in a hopeful frame of mind? Or do you mean you hope you'll leave on the noon plane? Whichever you mean, you haven't said it clearly. Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.

And, without explanation, The Associated Press Stylebook attempts to ban the cheerful modifier: "Do not use [hopefully] to mean it is hoped, let us or we hope."

In fact, as we're reminded by the editors of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb is "entirely standard." In The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, Robert Burchfield bravely defends "the legitimacy of the usage," and The Longman Grammar points approvingly to the appearance of hopefully in "the more formal registers of news and academic prose, as well as in conversation and fiction." The American Heritage Dictionary reports that its "use is justified by analogy to similar uses of many other adverbs" and that "wide acceptance of the usage reflects popular recognition of its usefulness; there is no precise substitute."

In short, hopefully as a sentence adverb has been inspected and approved by most dictionaries, grammarians, and usage panels. Ultimately, the decision to use it or not is largely a matter of taste, not correctness.

A Hopeful Recommendation

Consider following the advice of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: "Writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck. With luck, writers and editors will avoid wooden alternatives like it is hoped or one hopes."