Hopefully, this will clarify the controversy about sentence adverbs

An unrecognised function of adverbs: sentence adverbs

Consider this paragraph, and the meaning of the adverbs used in it (I have used bold to show both the adverbs and verbs).

  • It is exam time again. Happily, most students are prepared. Sadly, some students will underperform. Unfortunately, they think their results determines their entire future. Thankfully, those of us who are older know that exams are not the be-all and end-all.

The students have very likely not prepared in a happy manner (the meaning of happily); the meaning of the sentence is more that we can be happy that most students are prepared.

The students will not be underperforming in a sad manner (the meaning of sadly); the meaning of the sentence is more that we can be sad that some students will underperform.

They are not thinking about their future in an unfortunate manner (the meaning of unfortunately); the meaning of the sentence is more that it is an unfortunate situation that they think this determines their entire future.

Those of us who are older are not knowing in a thankful manner (the meaning of thankfully); the meaning is more we can be thankful that we know that exams are only a small part of life.

Here is another example, with the adverb and verb in bold for you.

  • I received an email from the CEO, explaining that the company was realigning its resources in the current difficult trading conditions to ensure that it was rightsized,  my position was one subject to involuntary attrition and he congratulated me on the opportunity to find a better fit for my skillset in a different employment environment. Basically, I was sacked.

Bascially should describe was sacked — but the final sentence does not mean I was sacked in a basic manner. The opposite occurred: I was sacked in a very roundabout and convoluted manner! What the sentence means is The basic meaning is that I was sacked or In summary, I was sacked.

What is going on here?

What these adverbs are doing is creating a perspective or tone for the entire sentence they start (as I hope you can see from the extended meanings). Modern grammarians refer to these adverbs as sentence adverbs or disjunctive adverbs (for people who rejected a Latin-based approach to language, modern grammarians are weirdly fond of making up words with a Latin base). I am sad to say that traditional grammar has nothing to say about adverbs used in this way. It may be because this style of writing – using an adverb to create a tone for the whole sentence rather than writing a longer version – is a reasonably modern development, and the longer versions of those sentences were preferred in previous centuries. It may simply be that this form of sentence structure doesn’t exist in Latin!

This is one of the few cases where I have to, grudgingly (and I do mean in a grudging manner), admit that the modern grammarians have a point. We do use adverbs in this way, particularly in speech, so we need to describe this function (I prefer the term sentence adverb).

There are a number of adverbs that are used as sentence adverbs (they can also be used as sentence adverbs). In the Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Pam Peters lists confidentially, frankly, happily, honestly, incredibly, luckily, mercifully, naturally, sadly, surprisingly, thankfully and unfortunately. There are others: actually and really are ones that we use a lot in speech. And it may because of their use in speech (where we do not speak in sentences, let alone grammatical sentences) that we have become used to using these adverbs to set a tone for what we say next or leave unsaid, rather than just modifying a verb, adjective or other adverb, and this has now affected how we write.

  • ‘Are you going to the party?’ ‘Hopefully!’

We know that the reply means the speaker hopes to go to the party, not that they will be going to the party in a hopeful manner.

In speech, I have nothing against sentence adverbs: in writing, I am not so keen on them. I would generally prefer that we spell out we mean for clarity, even if we have to use a few extra words.


The special case of hopefully

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque

In this quote from Stevenson, hopefully is an adverb and it does mean in a hopeful manner. It is describing the verb to travel (adverbs can modify infinitive forms of a verb as well as conjugated ones).

  • Hopefully, this sentence provides a useful example.

This sentence does not mean This sentence provides, in a hopeful manner, a useful example.

The meaning of the sentence is I hope this sentence provides a useful example.  (It could also mean You hope, We hope or They hope or He or She hopes, depending on the context.)

For reasons that no one is clear about, more people dislike the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb than other words (such as the ones mentioned above). Maybe it is because it is usually meant to mean I hope or We hope or It is hoped, while the other sentence adverbs usually have to replaced by a longer clause. Pam Peters notes that the use of hopefully as a new(ish) sentence adverb had a sudden burst of popularity in the 1960s, so it is relatively recent phenomenon. In general, reference guides – even the Maquarie Dictionary – will make a note that the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb will irritate some readers and even cause criticism of the writer – but also say there is nothing wrong with this usage. It’s a bit like split infinitives, but this time I’m with the critics: I think we should write I hope or We hope or It is hoped if that is what we mean, rather than using hopefully.

But note:

  • Are you going to the races next week?’ ‘Hopefully!’ – may very well mean that I will be going in a hopeful manner!

I hope this has cleared things up for you! And for all those students out there doing exams, I hope you do well.

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Images: students in a classroom in Yallourn, 1947, from Museums Victoria; boat image by Luca Bravo, both on Unsplash



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