November 6, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hopefully, double words

Posted in doubled words, hopefully at 8:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: hopefully

We’ve been hearing a lot about ‘hope’ lately, and that’s a good thing. In the spirit of a renewed hope, I am inspired to talk today about ‘hopefully.’ And this is what I have to say: we all are using ‘hopefully’ incorrectly!

”I think there’s more ice cream in the freezer,” she said hopefully.

Hopefully, I won’t have to listen to another political advertisement for a very long time.

Which of these sentences is correct?

If you said, ”Both,” join the party. But to a strict grammarian, only the first sentence is correct. ‘Hopefully’ means ‘full of hope’ so in the first sentence, the girl is full of hope as she thinks about ice cream in the freezer. It is used correctly again, here, in a quotation from Phillip Roth:

It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, ”Momma, do we believe in winter?’’

In the second sentence, ‘hopefully’ is used to mean ‘it is hoped.’ Purists are very vehement that using it this way is completely misguided. Their chief complaint is that used in this fashion, it can be ambiguous, which is completely true.

The pianist will play hopefully after the audience is seated.

Does this mean that the music the pianist will be playing has an air of hopefulness or that it is hoped that the pianist will start playing? Hard to say. But, as we all know, this usage can be found everywhere, and the confusion doesn’t seem to have stopped the world from turning.

That being said, don’t use it to mean ‘it is hoped’ in any formal or other writing. I have a number of reasons for saying that: first, there is the ambiguity of the word; second, you risk your reader thinking that you are somewhat illiterate (can one be somewhat illiterate?); third, purists find it annoying; and finally, ‘hopefully’ is a terribly namby pamby word – it puts the responsibility for wishing whatever will hopefully happen into the hands of no one at all.

Tip 2: Que sera sera

Gertrude Stein famously said, about Oakland California, ”There is no there there.” I have always loved that; the statement is so eloquent in its simplicity.

Of course, when typing ‘there there’ in Word, the second ‘there’ gets highlighted, and the spell checker asks if I want to delete the repeated word. And that is the topic of today’s second tip: repeated or doubled words.

I’m coming in in a minute.

I told her her experiment was exploding.

When I saw it, it was lying in the middle of the yard.

The question is is the election a harbinger of a new day for the country?

What she is is a connoisseur of fine Italian wines.

These are actually grammatically correct, albeit terribly awkward. Although strictly acceptable, there are better ways to write these sentences.

I’m coming inside in a minute.

I told her that her experiment was exploding.

When I saw it, it was lying in the middle of the yard. (Actually, this sentence is okay; the comma prevents the structure from being awkward.)

Is the election a harbinger of a new day for the country? (‘The question is’ is trite and doesn’t contribute to the meaning of the sentence. Lop it off.)

She is a connoisseur of fine Italian wines. (Lop off ‘what she is’ – see above explanation.)

These awkward structures are more commonly found in conversational rather than written English, and we SHOULD avoid them.

What MUST be avoided is:

The problem is is that I have some major decisions to make and I need more time.

This construction is NOT correct grammatically. It is what is known as ‘the double copula’ or ‘the double is.’

Copula is a fancy term for a linking verb: it does not express action, but links the subject of the verb to information about the subject (the complement). An example of a copula is:

The presentation was very well-received by the audience.

The linking verb or copula, ‘was,’ does not describe an action but links ‘very well received by the audience’ to ‘the presentation.’

A double copula is two linking verbs (usually in the ‘to be’ family) in a row when only one is necessary.

The issue is is that there is no new thing under the sun.

The point is is that we have elected the first African American president in the history of the United States.

While common enough to have acquired a name, the double copula is not standard or proper English, and it should NEVER be used.



  1. Howard said,

    As one of my favorite undergraduate instructors, a master grammarian (indeed, she was once flagged for her abstruse prose), philosopher queen, and post-modern scholar, Judith Butler, artfully deconstructed the cupola in the context of reading Martin Heidegger, “Substance is subject.” More recently, and far less obscure, I offer the following example: “It depends on what the meaning of is is.”

    Respectfully submitted,


  2. Bryna said,

    Excellent! Excellent topics and discussion, and thanks.

    However, you allude to this, but I favor separating spoken from written language. These awkward structures are more commonly found in conversational rather than written English, and we SHOULD avoid them. I think we should avoid them in written English, but not necessarily in spoken or conversational English. You point out two different grammatical issues with hopefully and the double copula (thank you for including that) but I think they “sound correct” in conversational English for the same reason.

    Almost all of these examples can be heard as “correct” in spoken language. In fact, I would argue that so much of spoken language is not grammatical per se, but important signals to the listener to assist in the dialog. For instance, “Hopefully” and “The question is” and “I told her” etc are signaling the intent and affect of the speaker and giving important clues to what is next….similar to punctuation. So I would say that in spoken English, (and emails are a different kind of English altogether), “Hopefully” at the beginning of the sentence signals that the speaker is hopeful so the listener knows that the next thing the speaker says is what the speaker hopes is true, but not that it’s actually true. I can make the argument for the rest because most of these “wrong usages” are at the beginning of the sentence or phrase, so perfectly helpful in conversation, and absolutely incorrect for written English.


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