Grammarians, get a grip. “Hopefully” as a sentence adverb is here to stay.—Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax.

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Dangling Modifiers

Third-grade class in a New York grammar school, 1944.

Third-grade class in a New York grammar school, 1944. Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

In grammar, a “dangling modifier” or “misplaced modifier” is a word or phrase that modifies a clause in an ambiguous manner, because it can potentially apply to either the subject or the object of the clause. Dangling modifiers are considered stylistically poor by most style guides.

The following is an example of a dangling modifier (from the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style):

Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.

This sentence is ambiguous, as it is not clear whether the speaker or the house was in a dilapidated condition.

As in the examples above, dangling modifiers are often participial in nature. When they are, they are referred to as dangling participles. Adverbial phrases or adverbs can also occur as dangling modifiers.

Sometimes, the antecedent of a dangling modifier is disambiguated for semantic reasons, even if syntactic reasons are insufficient. For example: “Being asleep, the telephone startled me when it rang” is unambiguous, because telephones cannot be asleep. Even when unambiguous, however, dangling modifiers are still rejected by most style guides. In English and other word-order syntax languages, dangling modifiers can generally be repaired simply by rearranging the word order: “Being asleep, I was startled when the telephone rang.”


In the last thirty years or so, a major controversy has arisen in stylistic and rhetorical circles over the proper usage of the adverb “hopefully.” Some grammarians began to object when they first encountered constructions like: “Hopefully, the sun will be shining tomorrow.” Their complaint stems from the fact that the term “hopefully” dangles, and can be understood to describe either the speaker’s state of mind, or the manner in which the sun will shine.

In most modern, common speech, “hopefully,” when used in this fashion, is acting as an embedded interjection or a simple sentence connector (cf. “admittedly,” “mercifully,” “oddly”). Because it has become so widespread, this use of a dangling adverb does not create ambiguity. For example, most speakers will interpret “Hopefully, John got home last night” as meaning that the speaker hopes that John arrived home last night, not that John got home last night in a hopeful manner.

In recent years the common usage has become much more acceptable, perhaps because its semantics are reminiscent of the German hoffentlich (“it is to be hoped that”) which implies (in the context of our first example) that the speaker hopes the sun will shine. Therefore, it has become more common to express “hopefully” as in this manner in a rearranged construction without a comma: “Mark awaited word from his agent hopefully” or, even more specifically, “Mark hopefully awaited word from his agent.”

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