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Bill Bryson, author of the recent best-seller "A Short History of Nearly Everything", in one of his books says:

We must never use hopefully in an absolute sense, such as "Hopefully it will not rain tomorrow".

After having read that assertion many times, I'm still not able to understand what Bill Bryson means.

Precisely, what does absolute sense mean in that statement and in reference to hopefully?

Is hopefully correctly used in "Hopefully it will not rain tomorrow"? If not, why? Can anybody shed a bit of light to clarify what Bill Bryson says?

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The use of 'hopefully' as a non-modifier of a verb has been covered in depth, both here and elsewhere. An example of the adverbial usage is: He putted hopefully from the edge of the green. Some would also call the usage in Hopefully it will not rain tomorrow adverbial, with hopefully now 'modifying' the whole sentence, not the verb. However, the word here is better classed as a pragmatic marker, in this case showing the speaker's attitude towards tomorrow's weather (so subclass 'evaluative'). It is short for the comment clause 'It is to be hoped that' (...). And it is quite acceptable. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 29 '13 at 21:15
My feeble brain is overawed by the depth of grammatical expertise displayed by some users of this site. My pragmatic brain asks: is there really a problem here? The point of language is communication. Language is created by its speakers, and babies learn syntax without studying any formal rules. I would place a large bet that there is no native speaker who does not understand what is meant by "Hopefully it will not rain tomorrow." I like Bill Bryson's works in general but in this instance I really think he should sort some priorities. Hopefully he will. –  Mynamite Apr 4 '13 at 22:52
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3 Answers

This is not an answer in terms of grammar as such, but I'm writing this hopefully to shed a different light on the issue.

Hopefully, of course, literally means "full of hope". Edwin says It is short for the comment clause 'It is to be hoped that' (...). (which I don't disagree with). But I tend to think of it as short for "I (or we) hope that" - but the sentence does not make any reference (actual or otherwise implied) to me/us. For that reason, I tend to think of it as strictly ungrammatical. (That's not to say that I don't use or understand it! - nor that I'm correct?!)

On the other hand, in my introductory sentence, I'm saying that "I'm writing this in the hope that (or full of hope that or while hoping that) it will shed a different light on the issue." It's clear that it's me doing the hoping.

As an aside, Mynamite says that he is sure "that there is no native speaker who does not understand" what it means - and I agree with him - but that doesn't make it acceptable or correct. I'm sure we would all understand what "I ain't got no money" means - but nevertheless, it's still not correct or 'acceptable' English.

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I will quote Michael Swan (Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press, § 253):

Another meaning [of hopefully] is ‘it is to be hoped that’ or ‘I hope’. This is a fairly recent use in British English, and some people consider it incorrect.

Since it is an adverb, it is regarded as incorrect because it refers to the whole sentence, instead of the verb only. This can also be viewed as an absolute usage, as the adverb is not attached to a single phrase, but to the whole sentence, as I said before.

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An addition to earlier answers is justified: Bryson's terminology is a little quirky, as well as his proscription being draconian.

We can perhaps understand why he calls the use of hopefully as a pragmatic marker (or, traditionally, sentence adverb) an 'absolute sense' [usage] if we read the following, from http://www.dl.ket.org/latinlit/grammar/ablativeabsolute.htm :

The Ablative Absolute

An Ablative Absolute phrase is used when a thought, condition or action is grammatically separate but modifies the meaning of the rest of the sentence. The ablative absolute is sometimes called an adverbial phrase because it modifies the whole sentence as an adverb modifies the action of a verb. We use absolute adverbial phrases in English too: 'They had a pleasant trip, all things considered.'

Here, all things considered is a pragmatic marker, a framing comment by the speaker. The single word thankfully could occupy the same slot. The reference calls the phrase an 'absolute ablative phrase'; Bryson uses the term 'absolute' for the single-word replacement also.

Indeed, in Happy with his burger, Bob didn't notice the man fall off the pier, the usage of the adjective happy is labelled an absolute usage.

Care needs to be taken not to confuse this usage, which applies to a particular way adjectives / adverbs participate in syntactic structures, with the term 'absolute' contrasting with 'comparable':

absolute adjective: An adjective, such as "supreme" or "infinite," with a meaning that is generally not capable of being intensified or compared.

( http://grammar.about.com/od/ab/g/absadjterm.htm )

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Hm, I know what you are calling an “absolute adjective” as an “absolute superlative”. I think. –  tchrist Mar 29 '13 at 23:54
You'll just hate the article here, then: alphadictionary.com/blog/?p=172 –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 30 '13 at 0:27
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