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February 11th, 2004

Pronouncing February / hopefully

by Barbara Wallraff

Judy Kline, of Clawson, Mich., writes, “How is the current month correctly pronounced? ‘Feb-roo-ary’ or ‘Feb-yoo-ary’? My adult daughters and I disagree.”

What a perfect subject for a family quarrel! All six major contemporary American dictionaries give both pronunciations. Some put the “yoo” pronunciation first; others put “roo” first. Most include a usage note about pronunciation, explaining that the “roo” pronunciation is traditionally regarded as correct but that the “yoo” pronunciation is increasingly common among people at all levels of education. So there’s plenty to be said in favor of either point of view.

I’ve always pronounced the word “Feb-roo-ary.” Most of those dictionary usage notes declare the word hard to pronounce that way—but I disagree. Anyone who can say “febrile,” which means “feverish,” can say “Feb-roo-ary.” And call me a showoff, but when I say “February,” I like to give the impression that I know how to spell the word. I always suspect people who say “Feb-yoo-ary” of not knowing that the month is spelled with two “r”s. This is in fact a common spelling mistake, which even turns up in published writing. But a mistake it surely is—and pronouncing the month “Feb-yoo-ary” can’t but encourage it.

Donna Stevens, of Kingston, Ontario, writes, “The adverb ‘hopefully’ seems to have incorporated itself into our language in an incorrect way. For example: ‘Hopefully, my boss will give me a day off to go to the concert.’ A boss wouldn’t give a day off ‘hopefully,’ or full of hope. A person would search for a job hopefully. I guess people are using ‘hopefully’ instead of ‘I hope.’ I have a problem with this, but I can never really explain the problem to friends. Am I wrong?”

No, you’re not. No one would ever think of using many other adverbs the way you’ve used “hopefully” in your example. Imagine, for instance, that you’re eager for your boss to give you the day off: “Eagerly, my boss will give me a day off”? Or maybe you’re afraid he won’t: “Fearfully, he may not give me a day off.” How absurd! The traditional wisdom about adverbs is that they are supposed to modify a verb (“I listened to the music happily”), an adjective (“a wonderfully attentive audience”), or another adverb (“He played extremely quickly”—or “extremely fast,” for not all adverbs end in “-ly”). “Hopefully” in your example doesn’t do any of these things.

Curiously, however, there are a certain few adverbs that everyone agrees may modify a whole sentence, rather than particular words in the sentence. “Curiously” is a good example. Some others are “apparently,” “clearly,” “frankly, “naturally,” and “regrettably.” It’s true that a great many people now consider “hopefully” to be a legitimate sentence adverb, meaning “I hope” or “let’s hope” or “it is to be hoped.” But if you don’t see it that way, you’re in good company. A number of authorities on language, including a large majority of the members of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, disapprove of using “hopefully” as a sentence adverb.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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