Misplaced Adverbs: Sadly Abused?

misplaced adverbs
Photo credit: Jens Aber

My ‘lazy language’ file gets fatter every day. It’s absolutely bulging with examples of errors in written texts, made by those who should know better. And many of them are cases of misplaced adverbs.

They can mangle meaning, and turn a sentence into a piece of nonsense.

Hopefully I hope

I’ll bet the very next time you hear the word ‘hopefully’ it will have been used wrongly.

‘He died hopefully’

Consider this sentence for a minute.

Am I wishing ill on someone? Am I unfeeling and cruel? Do I benefit from his will? Not at all. It’s just another of those wrongly placed adverbs.

In fact, it isn’t a sentence you would see very often but, if you did, it would mean something entirely different.

To say he died ‘hopefully’ (in a state of hope), probably suggests he had an eye on reaching a better place.

So many writers just don’t get this. And that’s why the word ‘hopefully’ is high on the list of wrongly placed adverbs, used incorrectly 90% of the time.

‘Hopefully, we’ll win fifty million dollars’

I’m sure you’ve heard, and probably said, this many times. But if you think about it, it’s not exactly what you mean.

Are you really likely to be winning in a hopeful state, which is what ‘hopefully’ means?

Winning ‘hopefully’ seems a bit selfish, in my opinion. Are you hoping to win again?

It really should be written as ‘We hope we’ll win…’ And who wouldn’t?

If you must use an adverb, then ‘Hopefully we’ll buy a ticket’ makes more sense. Buying a ticket in the hopeful state — that is, ‘full of hope’ — is the only way to do it, otherwise why bother?

And when you have that fifty million dollar windfall, I’d say there’s pretty much nothing left to hope for.

Sadly misplaced adverbs

You’ll be familiar with this one.

‘… but he sadly died’

I bet he did. He probably wasn’t looking forward to shuffling off this mortal coil, and there might have been some long, lingering and sad goodbyes. But what if his exit were sudden? No time for tears or regrets, then…

Seriously, though, the adverb is totally misplaced.

The clause could be written as: ‘… but, sadly, he died’, but that isn’t really any better. He’s still the one who’s sad.

To make it clear, it’s better to avoid an adverb altogether and to write:

‘… but, we’re sad to say, he died’, putting the sadness where it belongs — with the speaker, and perhaps others, who are sorry to see him go.

When you’re happy and you know it…

You can break the ‘happily’ habit and use ‘fortunately’ most of the time, but even then you could be sending the wrong message.

Try this one:

‘Happily, he only broke a leg’

An adverb says ‘how’, ‘when’ or ‘where’. In this case it says how he broke a leg.

Apparently he broke it happily. Maybe he was having a great time and laughing a lot, but surely that was just before he broke his leg. Hearing that bone cracking would wipe the smile from anyone’s face.

Some people will think it pedantic, but the sentence should be written as:

‘We were happy to hear (or He was happy thathe only broke a leg’ (rather than his neck).

Even so, is ‘happy’ the right word? I’d say ‘relieved’ was more to the point.

It’s these little adverbial slips that signal lazy language.