Burgess Laughlin

Modifiers That Cause Problems

9 posts in this topic

Sometimes modifiers can cause confusion. A classic example is the misuse of "hopefully." It means "full of hope." It is an adverb. As such, and properly used, it usually describes an action:

In the dark and eerie cave, I proceeded slowly but hopefully. Here "hopefully" tells the reader in what manner the speaker proceeded. Following is an improper use:

Hopefully, the rabid dog won't bite the children. Here the writer has used a modifier modifying -- nothing! It is a dangling modifier. What the writer is probably trying to say is: "I hope that the rabid dog won't bite the children."

Consider another example of a modifier that can cause confusion. This usage is more controversial: the use of a modifier that, though perhaps grammatically correct, seems to state a contradiction. In the following case, the modifier is an adjective:

Refusing to address this crucial issue is a sign of moral cowardice. Here my first reaction is: How can cowardice be moral? I know that it can't be. I can eventually figure out that the writer is speaking in a compressed style. "Moral cowardice" is shorthand for "cowardice in the realm of ethics." I now avoid such a use of adjectives unless I am certain my audience will understand what I intend to say.

Corrections? Elaborations? Disagreements?

P. S. -- One benefit of starting a topic in the Grammar School is that it makes me pay even more attention to the grammar of my own writing. If you see grammatical or stylistic errors in what I have written here, please comment. I hope all will benefit.

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Hopefully, the rabid dog won't bite the children. Here the writer has used a modifier modifying -- nothing! It is a dangling modifier. What the writer is probably trying to say is: "I hope that the rabid dog won't bite the children."

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I found the following information on my online dictionary concerning "hopefully."

Main Entry: hope·ful·ly

Pronunciation: 'hOp-f&-lE

Function: adverb

1 : in a hopeful manner

2 : it is hoped : I hope : we hope

In the early 1960s the second sense of hopefully, which had been in sporadic use since around 1932, underwent a surge of popular use. A surge of popular criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs. Hopefully in its second sense is a member of a class of adverbs known as disjuncts. Disjuncts serve as a means by which the author or speaker can comment directly to the reader or hearer usually on the content of the sentence to which they are attached. Many other adverbs (as interestingly, frankly, clearly, luckily, unfortunately) are similarly used; most are so ordinary as to excite no comment or interest whatsoever. The second sense of hopefully is entirely standard.

So if the word is used as a disjunct and its meaning is clear, then it really isn't a dangling modifier, or at least one that doesn't lead to confusion.

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I found this definition of a disjunct: A disjunct expresses the speaker or writer's attitude to what is being described in the sentence.

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Hopefully, the rabid dog won't bite the children. Here the writer has used a modifier modifying -- nothing! It is a dangling modifier. What the writer is probably trying to say is: "I hope that the rabid dog won't bite the children."

Burgess, I'm not sure it is necessarily a misuse. It could just be a shorthand for something like:

"I speaking hopefully, remark about the rabid dog not biting the children."

The adverb "hopefully" in the front has an implied reflective pronoun reflecting back on the speaker. it's a quirk of the language, one that apparently developed only recently, as Paul's post shows, but it's not necessarily incorrect.

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I found this definition of a disjunct: A disjunct expresses the speaker or writer's attitude to what is being described in the sentence.

Paul's Here and Free Capitalist, thank you for your comments. I have certainly learned from this topic. I had not heard of a "disjunct" before now. Not one of my grammar books lists it.

Apparently, in the example given, what signals that "Hopefully" is a disjunct -- rather than a mere misused, dangling adverb -- is its position and its punctuation. Both position and punctuation set the adverb off, that is, separate (disjoin) it from the sentence that follows. In other words, "Hopefully" there is a comment on what the speaker says in the remainder of the sentence. The speaker is speaking at two levels: (1) commentator on his own narration and (2) narration.

My unabridged dictionary says the term "disjunct" comes from the Latin past participle disjunctus, "having been not-joined," that is, having been separated. So, the term makes sense. Interestingly, my unabridged dictionary does not list a grammatical meaning for the term "disjunct," but it does refer readers to the phrase "sentence adverb." The meaning of that term is an adverb that modifies or comments on the (remainder of the) sentence as a whole.

From the examples of disjunct that I have seen, I note that disjuncts often reveal the speaker's state of mind -- his "attitude," as Paul's Here's dictionary says.

Frankly, I now think that the concept "disjunct" is a legitimate identification and explanation of a common usage in speech and in casual writing. For the case of formal writing, I am not convinced it is the best -- here, clearest -- way to say what the writer supposedly intends to say: "I hope that the rabid dog won't bite the children."

Consider these examples:

- The Western allies hopefully will go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will hopefully go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will go to war hopefully against Iran.

In all three cases, if the reader intends to say "I hope that ...," then he is writing improperly. At best, the intended meaning of the sentences is unclear. At worst, the sentences can easily be misunderstood or cause confusion. For example, consider the third sentence. Is the writer saying he believes the allies, filled with hope, will go to war? Or is he saying he believes the allies will go to war, but he hopes they do so against the right target, Iran!

Indubitably, additional punctuation or more words would make the point clearer.

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Consider these examples:

- The Western allies hopefully will go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will hopefully go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will go to war hopefully against Iran.

In all three cases, if the reader intends to say "I hope that ...," then he is writing improperly. At best, the intended meaning of the sentences is unclear. At worst, the sentences can easily be misunderstood or cause confusion. For example, consider the third sentence. Is the writer saying he believes the allies, filled with hope, will go to war? Or is he saying he believes the allies will go to war, but he hopes they do so against the right target, Iran!

Indubitably, additional punctuation or more words would make the point clearer.

Those are interesting examples that illustrate the importance of punctuation. I think that in all three cases, if "hopefully" were set off with commas, then in each case they would mean "I hope" and there would be less ambiguity. Without commas, "hopefully," in the first two examples, seems to be modifying the verb by describing how the allies will go to war: "in a hopeful manner" (definition 1 above).

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I would also add that the first two sentences can still be understood with their proper meaning, even if the writer is too lazy to separate "hopefully" with commas. The third sentence, however, is clearly of a different meaning, that it is the Western allies who are hopeful, and the writer's laziness there actually ends up obscuring his meaning.

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I would also add that the first two sentences can still be understood with their proper meaning, even if the writer is too lazy to separate "hopefully" with commas. The third sentence, however, is clearly of a different meaning, that it is the Western allies who are hopeful, and the writer's laziness there actually ends up obscuring his meaning.

I'm not sure what you mean by "their proper meaning." There are two meanings for "hopefully." If an adverb is near a verb, it typically modifies the verb. Without commas, the word modifues "will go" (definition 1) and describes the mentality of the allies. With commas, hopefully refers to the second definition as a disjunct: I hope. It is an assessment of the entire sentence by the writer/speaker as to what he hopes will happen.

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What I mean is, that commas are sometimes left off, as people are apt to do once in a while if careless or in a rush. But even in those cases it is often possible to decypher the intended meaning of the words, based on what other words they're near. Take the examples Burgess gave:

- The Western allies hopefully will go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will hopefully go to war against Iran.

- The Western allies will go to war hopefully against Iran.

For the first of these two sentences, it can still be reasonably determined that the person means "Hopefully, the Western allies will go to war against Iran" in each and every case. However, carelessness with commas in the last sentence obscures that intended meaning, and people are more likely to assume that the author means: "The Western allies will be hopeful as they to war against Iran".

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