sadly (and a bit on hopefully)

Those of us who've relocated from our "home English" acquire many new turns of phrase, and we get used to even more. But for most of us, some phrasings just never sit right. We cringe at them. We resist them. We gripe (oh, how we gripe!) about them. And it's one of those things that I'm writing about today. Followers on Twitter will have heard aspects of this before because oh how we gripe!

The object of my gripe? It's not a word. It's a word in a certain context—the word sadly in British newspaper reports like these:

A selection of sadly died in UK news reports, from GloWBE

Besides sadly died, there's sadly passed away, sadly lost, and so forth.

Now, I have a certain sensitivity to death-writing because of my funeral-home upbringing (as you've seen before). I have little patience for euphemism and cliché when it comes to talking about the fact that people have died. But the heart of why it bothers me has to do with the tone I expect from newspapers, having grown up with American ones (I've also mentioned that before, here). I expect a newspaper report to tell me that there was an accident or a murder and someone died. That a celebrity or statesperson died. That is the news. They died. The sadly is inappropriate (orig. AmE)  editoriali{s/z}ing.

British newspapers put their hearts on their sleeves more than American ones do in reporting, not just in terms of expressing sadness at deaths, but in their reporting of everything. (I know this sometimes surprises non-Americans because they think of Fox News. But that's not a newspaper.) I recall my mother objecting "they can't say that!" to a front-page news story when she first visited me in the UK. I can't remember what the story was, but to her the writing clearly indicated that the reported thing  was a bad thing (or maybe a good thing). American newspapers are only supposed to take a sides in pieces that are clearly marked as 'opinion'. So sadly is off-tone for me in an factual report.

But also I bristle at the sadly because it's such a pathetic word, given the situations it's used to describe. Last month, I read a story about a man being stabbed by a stranger on a train which included the phrase "he was sadly killed". Sadly doesn't cut it. It was horrific. It was shocking. It was angering. Sadly is mere platitude.

And then there's another reason why it grates: the old sentential adverb problem. You might know this from hopefully. There are all sorts of pedants out there who claim that a sentence like
She'll arrive soon, hopefully.
has to mean that she'll arrive full of hope. That's actually a silly thing to claim, because there are so many other adverbs that one could make the same argument about and no one's making that argument or interpreting those adverbs that way. If I say
She'll arrive soon, unfortunately.
I'm not saying that she'll arrive in an unfortunate state or in an unfortunate manner. It means that I find it unfortunate that she'll arrive, just as the hopefully in the previous example is describing the mental state of the speaker, rather than the state of the subject of the sentence.

Having said that, one has to admit that these sentences are ambiguous: you could interpret them with the hopeful or the unfortunate applying to the she.

Sadly is another case where the adverb is usually used to attribute a feeling to the speaker (or writer) rather than to the subject of the sentence. He sadly died is not intended to convey 'he died while sad', but 'We are sad about him dying'. The people who complain about hopefully never seem to notice sadly doing what they say an adverb shouldn't do. That seems hypocritical, but I don't think they're really hypocrites. I think they're people who just like to parrot things they've heard about linguistic usage without really understanding them. (Is that better or worse than being a hypocrite? Since I'm a hypocrite on so many things, I'm going to say it's worse.)

While I can see that it is perfectly ok to use sadly in that way, the ambiguity of sadly is very apparent to me when I hear or read the sadly-died statements: for two reasons. First, AmE uses a lot more commas than BrE does, and the lack of commas in He has sadly died also adds to the 'clang' factor for me. If it were  
He has, sadly, died.
then it would have to be interpreted as 'I am sad that he has died'. Without the commas, to my American eye, the ambiguity (is it sad that he died, or was he sad when he died?) punches me in the brain.

And second is the problem of where the adverb is placed (though this is not relevant to all of the above examples): AmE would prefer not to put the adverb between has and died, whereas that's where BrE likes its sentential adverbs. We've seen that before for adverbs like certainly and probably. So, he has sadly died sounds a tad unnatural to me as an AmE speaker anyway. He sadly has died sounds better. And He, sadly, has died looks like how I'd want to pronounce it.

I mostly read sadly-died phrasings because I get most of my news in typed form, but one hears it in British radio and televsion too. There are not great comma pauses when it's said. Sometimes it almost sounds like it's a one-word journalistic synonym for passed away. He sadlydied.

So that's me and my creeped-out, nails-on-chalkboard feelings about BrE journalistic sadly. I can do my descriptive linguist thing and say: Isn't that interesting? What function does it have? Here's why it might sound weird to Americans. But sometimes it's hard for the linguistic training to silence the cultural training and the near-lifetime's worth of experience of proofreading the super-factual American obituaries my dad has written. Though, I suppose, the upside is that the cringey feeling has led me to do a bit of linguistic analysis. And write a blog post!

A late addition (19 Feb): I think I'm a little  unfair here in calling it 'journalistic'. A lot of the examples in newspapers are quoting the police, and it does seem to be a staple of UK police press engagement. Another one today in our local news: a man was stabbed and then he "sadly died early on Sunday morning after being taken to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton following the incident in Elm Grove", according to the police statement. 

And while I'm here...
The UK paperback of The Prodigal Tongue  has a publication date: 7th of March. If you've been waiting for that format, there are links for buying it here. It's nicer than the hardcover because it's got blurbs from all the great reviews on it, including that "The Economist Books of the Year" on the cover!

I'll be launching that edition on the 7th at the Leeds Literary Festival, and I'm giving more talks in different parts of the US and UK in the coming months—more details here. I'm always happy to give more, so do get in touch if you have a speaker series or festival that you think needs a lynneguist.


  1. How bad a person do you have to be for the British press not to use "sadly"? Was Hitler reported as having happily died?

    1. I notice that The Guardian didn't use "sadly died" in their story that Thatcher died:

      But then, they didn't use it for Harry Leslie Smith, either: -- so maybe this is just house style.

    2. Suppose that Hitler was compiling an order to some still-functioning organ of police or armed forces, one that would lead to thousands of executions. It would be understandable to say Hitler happily died before the order could be received and acted on.

    3. Checking the Guardian style guide, they have no proscription on "sadly died" and doing a date search they have used it in many sad death stories in the last 6 months.

  2. Quirk et al's A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language has an interesting footnote on the sentence

    Sadly, I resigned the chairmanship.

    In their terminology, adverb denotes a word class. — not a function within a clause. For such functions they have four terms — three of of which might apply to a reading of sadly in that sentence.

    ADJUNCT This is an adverb (or other adverbial expression) which is an integral part of the clause. This is the sort of adverb that we immediately think of. Traditional grammars tend to insist that adverbs are essentially adjuncts.

    If sadly is an adjunct then the sentence means 'I was sad to resign'.

    SUBJUNCT This is an adverb (or other adverbial expression) which is subordinate to the accompanying clause, or to some element of the clause.

    If sadly is a subject-oriented sunbjunct, then the sentence means 'I was sad when I resigned'.

    DISJUNCT This is an adverb (or other adverbial expression) which functions outside the accompanying clause.

    They divide disjuncts further according to the function of the adverbial in the sentence.

    STYLE DISJUNCTS convey the speaker's comment on the content of the clause.
    If sadly is a style disjunct, then the sentence means 'Sad to say, I resigned'.

    CONTENT DISJUNCTS make a comment on the content of the clause.
    If sadly is a content disjunct, then the sentence means 'One is sad/People are sad/it is sad news for you that I resigned'.

    It's not very likely that He sadly died would mean 'he was sad to die'. (ADJUNCT)
    And it's even less likely that it would mean 'He was sad when he died'. (SUBJUNCT)

    With adverb initial Sadly he died could mean 'Sad to say, he died'. (STYLE DISJUNCT)
    Or it could mean 'One is sad that he died'. (CONTENT DISJUNCT)

    With adverb final He died, sadly the same two DISJUNCT meanings are possible.

    With adverbial before the verb He sadly died, I think the meaning can only be DISJUNCT — and probably CONTENT DISJUNCT i.e. 'One is sad that he died'.

    For me it's not just that He sadly died can mean 'One is sad that he died'. Rather it's a natural word order in any style spoken or written — provided that I could also say He died in that style.

    In speech, we're more likely to say He passed away or something even more euphemistic. He died is stylistically more likely in writing. Besides, Quirk et al note that as a content disjunct, sadly belongs in formal use.

    But even writers tend to employ a variety of expression to mean 'died'. The only peculiarity of the obituary text-type is that they eschew the variety.

    I think another reinforcing factor is that we often use the phrase sad death.

    For me — and this is where my BrE may differ — the possible sentence-positions for an adverb are not necessarily restricted if it's used as a subjunct or a disjunt.
    I can say Slowly he died/He slowly died/He died slowly
    Therefore I can say Sadly he died/He sadly died/He died sadly/

    The distinction they make between ADJUNCT and DISJUNCT is not just semantic.

    Their first example of a disjunct use is
    Sadly, the storm destroyed the entire tobacco crop.
    contrasted with the adjuct use
    Dt Fox sadly sat in her room.

    But while we can say Did Dr Fox sit in her room sadly or cheerfully?
    we can't say
    *Did the storm destroy the crops sadly or ...

    Other tricks that can only be done with adjunct use are:
    It was sadly that Dr Fox sat in her room.
    Dr Fox sat in her room not sadly but cheerfully.
    Sadly Dr Fox sat in her room, and so did her husband.
    How did Dr Fox sit in her room?

    None of these are possible with Sadly the storm destroyed the crops.

  3. Ooh, are you coming to Birmingham on your book tour? I do have your hardback but it hasn't come up in my strict read-the-TBR-in-order schedule yet ...

    1. If you click on the link to events, you'll be able to see whether I'm coming *close enough* to Birmingham for you!

  4. ‘Sadly died’ may be toe-curling but at least it avoids the twee euphemisms of ‘passed away’ or ‘passed over’.

    1. Or, in the US, just "passed" (sometimes spelled "past" but let's not get into that). You feel like asking, did he or she pass by, pass on, pass wind, pass out, or pass the ball?

  5. I can't say I've ever noticed "sadly died" in newspapers. Maybe it's so much part of the journalistic landscape my eyes skip over it and I'll be seeing it all the time now.

    1. You will hear and see it in every COVID-19 government press conference in any of the four countries of the United Kingdom. I have not heard them once announce the number of deaths without the use of the word "sadly" before "died". There are so many other adverbs one could use ("needlessly", "tragically", "painfully") but perhaps "sadly" is oddly neutral, not implying any responsibility or undue emotion.

  6. Nothing to do with sadness or hope, sadly, but one thing that's always stood out for me with US newspaper headlines is the way commas are used. While a UK newspaper would use a headline like "Theresa May quizzed about Brexit and tax returns" the US equivalent seems to be "Theresa May quizzed about Brexit, tax returns", with the "and" dropped and replaced with a comma.

    I imagine that's something handed down from some sort of style guide, but it's always struck me as odd.

    1. I think it's simply meant to save space.

    2. It's got nothing to do with style and everything to do with space. Drop the "and" and you've got room to enlarge the headline a couple of points -- assuming you as editor think the news warrants bumping it up. Are the British so allergic to commas they think a decision like this is driven by style? Good lord.

    3. "Allergic" to commas? Not at all. The problem isn't the comma, it's the lack of the "and".

    4. Yes, it is to save space. For the same reason, US newspapers have "he died January 14" instead of "he died on January 14" and the New York Times Style Guide even abjures the use of the serial or Oxford comma to save space and printing ink. (The serial comma is often alluded to as a speciality of American English, but it is just another style choice, just like "-ize" or "-ise".

  7. Whatever way I die, I hope it is not sadly. I am guilty of the hopefully, and at a young age I was taught the correct usage. But the word works and people understand. I will continue to use hopefully incorrectly, just as I start sentences with But and And. It is now about communication, not spelling, word choice or grammar. Some really bad wordsmith communicators, fun and interesting people, though their written English is poor. That people just write, well or badly, excites me. It is good to encourage the less literate to write, however badly and painful it may be at times.

    Of course in newspapers etc I expect writers' English to be excellent but so often I see horrible clangers.

    1. It's perfectly fine usage. The problem is not with hopefully but with people who say you shouldn't say it who don't reali{s/z} they're saying all sorts of other equivalent "problem" adverbs.

    2. Andrew

      I am guilty of the hopefully, and at a young age I was taught the correct usage.

      This epitomises what was so appallingly wrong with traditional grammat teaching.

      * What you were taught at a young age was not 'the correct usage'. It was a shibboleth based on dogma, which in turn was based on a flawed, inflexible definition of what an adverb is and does. It was a lie.

      * It made you feel 'guilty' about your personal grammar.

      Your teachers may have entirely well-intentioned. But some of the old-school English teachers deliberately chose to make children feel inadequate — as an incentive to speak like a proper social climber.

      Hopefully is only very slightly different from other -fully adverbs used as what Lynne calls sentence adverbs.

      Hopefully he didn't die can mean 'One is hopeful that he didn't die'. But is can't mean 'I am hopeful to say that he didn't die'.

      Contrast this with Sadly he died which can mean either 'One is sad that he died' or 'I'm sad to tell you that he died'.

      Your current view that successful communication is the mark of 'good writing' is true. Your old teachers' view that rules of correctness are the one route to good writing. That view is untrue and unkind.

      You're doing exactly the right thing in copying the grammar of good writers rather than following the rules of your old teachers. You'll be doing even better when you stop feeling guilty about it.

    3. The views that successful communication is the mark of 'good writing' and that rules of correctness are the one route to good writing are not mutually exclusive. Successful communication is what we hope to achieve. Following certain rules might or might not help us achieve it. Anyway, who not only teaches rules, but also teaches that that those rules are the one route to good writing -- as if there were not other routes as well?

    4. In my book, Rosie, the view

      that successful communication is the mark of 'good writing'

      is true and helpful.

      The view

      that rules of correctness are the one route to good writing

      is misguided and at best unhelpful.

      Delete the one and insert a note of uncertainty, and I might see some point. For example:

      Some rules of correctness may sometimes be a route to good writing

      As to your final question

      Anyway, who not only teaches rules, but also teaches that that those rules are the one route to good writing -- as if there were not other routes as well?

      the answer is: teachers who (willingly or unwillingly) follow the dogmatic assertions of the testing regime.


      this example from David Crystal's blog

      In the sort of test which teachers are expected to respect, one question

      "...asks children to complete the sentence 'The sun shone ________ in the sky.' and the mark scheme reads 'Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully."

      Teachers found that children who wrote

      The sun shone bright in the sky.
      The sun shone dutifully in the sky.

      were penalised and had a mark deducted.

      As Michael Rosen commented, the notion that grammar, punctuation and spelling have 'right and wrong answers' was based on a wilful misreading by the Education Secretary Michael Gove of a consultative report. I agree with Rosen that this was nothing more nor less than prejudice dressed up as argument.

      Another example of prejudice masquerading as information is the use of hopefully which Andrew apologised for.

      The grammar-bigot Gove extended this to to telling his civil servants not to use However,at the beginning of a sentence. Fortunately, his powers did not extend to deducting marks or making people feel guilty.

    5. I'm in radical agreement with both David and Rosie. Although I'm not very familiar with the ins and outs of UK education politics, we've had very similar fights in the US. To my mind, the core problem is that it's far easier to teach rules than it is to teach writing. And that's especially true for the legions of teachers who arrive in our classrooms ill-prepared and badly supported.

  8. Don't bother to read this if you're not interested in grammar terminology.

    The big Quirk Grammar introduced the term ADJUNCT meaning an adverbial expression fully integrated into a clause. Unfortunately, the mainstream of grammar study has chosen to use ADJUNCT rather differently. The hardline theoreticians use it as a contrast to COMPLEMENT — another term used by Quirk et al in a specifically narrow, quite traditional sense.

    Leaving the hardline theorists aside, ADJUNCT is used in more recent grammars as a much more general term to describe the functions of adverbs and other adverbials.

    The newer big grammar The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language terms sadly not as a DISJUNCT but as an EVALUATIVE ADJUNCT.

    And hopefully they class not as a DISJUNCT but as a MODAL ADJUNCT.

    For when these words are used as integral elements of a clause they use the term MANNER ADJUNCT. Thus:

    ......MANNER ADJUCT.......................MODAL ADJUNCT
    i a. I could see her clearly..................b. He had clearly been irresponsible.
    ii a He was flirting too obviously....... b. He was obviously flirting.

    They have a footnote on hopefully

    The modal use of hopefully (as distinct from the manner use of He was looking hopefully around) was quite rare until around the 1960s, when it acquired considerable popularity, but also aroused strong (in some cases intemperate) opposition from conservative speakers. It has become thoroughly established and the opposition has abated somewhat in the last few years.

    1. The Cambridge Grammar also notes that sadly can be used as a MODIFIER within a noun phrase. The uses are subdivided in the same way as ADJUNCTS.

      So in a sadly brief visit the adverb is an EVALUATIVE MODIFIER.

      They also use the term MODAL MODIFIER, for example for the adverb in

      After possibly the worst performance of his career, he was booed off the stage.

      I suppose the same use and the same terminology is possible in, for example:

      Here he comes with hopefully the right key.

      Other modifiers in their taxonomy are

      FREQUENCY MODIFIER e.g. With invariably the most unconvincing explanations, he would attempt to excuse his behaviour.

      DOMAIN MODIFIER e.g. I'd rate this as architecturally the most impressive building in the city.

    2. in a sadly brief visit

      This was probably a poor example. It may be better to see sadly as a modifier within an AJECTIVE PHRASE.

      The example the Cambridge Grammar gives of an EVALUATIVE MODIFIER is

      With unfortunately very limited qualifications, he has little prospect of getting a job.

      So here's another attempt :

      It was sadly the worst book I've ever read.

  9. In an act of cosmic cruelty, I read this post shortly after being informed that a client I've been working for over the last 6 months or so -- one of the nicest I've had in my career as a freelance copywriter and copy editor -- died in a plane crash while vacationing with his parents in Kenya.

    Am I sad about his death? I suppose. But to be honest shock and disbelief do a better job of describing my state of mind. I might also throw in anger. I'm not sure how old my client was (in the Internet age it's never necessary to meet you clients face to face), but thanks to our conference calls if I had to guess I'd put him in his early thirties. In other words, a man with his whole life ahead of him.

    No, in this case "sad" is a banal, deeply platitudinous description of my emotional state on learning of this young person's absurd and unjust death in a universe ruled by unsentimental chance.

    1. Dick, I know from experience how strangely deeply felt it can be to lose someone you’ve only met virtually. That said, sometimes all we can think of are the platitudes. And so I say: I am sorry for your loss.

    2. Dick

      I'm sure we all feel something at reading of your loss. But that something can't come remotely near to the intense emotion that you describe. Our uninformed, unengaged, non-intense response to your grief can well be expressed as 'sad'.

      We're all sad and we're all sorry.

  10. Thank you for today's post, Lynne. Your irreverent honesty in tackling the subject at issue has brought a smile to my face on a day that has been a bit difficult.

    1. That’s kind of you to say! I hope tomorrow is a better day for you.

  11. "She sadly died" always amuses me as it's such a cliché, plus I always wonder how people knew she was sad to die - which is what it sounds likIe, whatever it actually *means*. It seems to have a distinct analogy with "She went hopefully to the supermarket" (but, of course, they didn't have what she wanted). What I call the "German" sense of "hopefully" (e.g. you could substitute "I hope that"), from the German "hoffentlich" which does mean that, seems to be a recent, and most welcome, addition to the language: "we are hopefully going on holiday next month" doesn't mean we are going full of hope, but that we hope we are going....

  12. My comment appears to be swallowed, so I'll paraphrase it. To my AmE ears, "He, sadly, has died" is probably the worst place to insert "sadly". Even the original (with commas) is better, but I'd prefer the beginning or the end of the clause, as in "sadly, he ha died" or "he has died, sadly"

  13. The Cambridge Grammar identifies three possible 'linear positions' for ADJUNCTS — by which they mean adverbs and other adverbial expressions whether or not they are integrated in a clause. Not surprisingly they are named

    Front — at the start of a clause, typically before the subject.
    Central — before the verb
    End — at the end of the clause, would you believe

    But as many verb forms consist of two or more verbs, they subdivide central positions into
    pre-auxiliary — e.g. They probably would watch TV for hours.
    post-auxiliary — e.g. They would probably watch TV for hours.

    We've seen in the thread on adverb placement that we BrE tend to favour post-auxiliary position while AmE tends to favour pre-auxiliary.

    The Cambridge Grammar narrows down the question of possible placement according to TYPE OF ADJUNCT.

    The four that are relevant fo He sadly died are

    1 DOMAIN e.g. politically✓ this ﹖ will ? become ﹖ very unpleasant ﹖
    The and ? symbols indicate whether the adverb can be place there.
    = the placement is unquestionably acceptable.
    = a placement here is much rarer but possible

    The most favoured is front Politically this will become very unpleasant
    Other positions are less likely, though not impossible — provided that the adverb is spoken in a detached way. For example:
    This will become PAUSE politically PAUSE very unpleasant

    2 MODALITY e.g. probably✓ she ✓ will ✓ go ✓ with them ✓
    This means that the adverb is acceptable in all positions.
    What it doesn't show is that central is preferable.
    BrE She will probably go with them. / AmE She probably will go with them.
    But front Probably she will go with them is common.
    And end She will go with them, probably is reasonably acceptable — often with that different tone of voice for probably.

    3 SPEECH ACT-RELATED e.g. frankly✓ this ﹖ is ﹖ becoming ﹖ a joke ﹖
    Again, much the preferred position is front: Frankly this is becoming a joke.
    A different tone of voice is common, which may be signalled by a comma: Frankly, PAUSE this is becoming a joke. But an integrated tone of voice is also possible when the adverb is in front. Personally I would signal this by not inserting a comma.

    4 EVALUATION e.g. unfortunately✓ they ﹖ had ﹖ set out ﹖ too late ﹖
    This is the same pattern as DOMAIN adverbs like politically above.
    Unfortunately they had set out too late is the preferred order.
    A different tone of voice — such as PAUSES — is common. This may be the reason for punctuation with commas.
    As with frankly above, it's more common to have a different tone of voice. But in front position, and integrated tone of voice is also possible.
    I would signal the two different-sounding choices by comma vs no comma.
    Unfortunately, they had set out too late vs Unfortunately they had set out too late
    When the adverb is in central position, there is normally no separation by tone of voice.
    Thus, returning to our theme, I would find it strange to say
    He PAUSE sadly PAUSE died.
    For this reason, I would find commas strange and confusing in He, sadly, died.

  14. This is a good opportunity to bring back the word 'alas.' Joe Blow has died, alas.

    OT, but as a transplant in the other direction (UK to US) I agree, Lynne, with your commentary on differences in newspapering. When I read UK newspapers these days, I find it hard to know what is fact, or rumor, or educated guesswork, or the reporter's person opinion. Alas.

  15. I'm British but 'he sadly died' jars on me too. If the writer feels obliged to express regret, 'Sadly, he died a week later' would be more appropriate.

  16. For me there is a clear difference between He sadly died a week later and Sadly, he died a week later.

    Placing the adverb first signals (to me at least) that what follows is contrary to expectation, or at least contrary to hope.

    Moving it to final position has a similar effect. The difference is that the unexpected/unhoped for nature is a comment.

    Moving it to central position makes his death and its timing just sad news — neither unexpected nor expected.

    It may be a generational thing, but I'm getting increasingly puzzled by the number of speakers — BrE as well as AmE — who find it jarring to read or hear He sadly died + [PARTICULARS].

    I say + [PARTICULARS] because I acknowledge that he sadly died FULL STOP/PERIOD would indeed be strange. Almost without exception, the examples in Lynnes selection are of the pattern

    SUBJECT died ADVERBIAL — where the adverbial expresses e.g. place, exact time, relative time, cause etc

    One counter-example is the second in the list
    r injured during an incident in Tameside this morning has sadly died # It is with g
    is different in two ways
    • It is PAST PERFECT
    • So many particulars were crammed into a long SUBJECT NOUN PRASE — so long that the software doesn't reveal the start of it. It's hard to think that utterer (? broadcaster) could have started the sentence with initial Sadly,

    Another counter-example
    mine who has now sadly died once said to me "You know Andrea the thing about
    • Again, I think the PRESENT PERFECT is a factor.
    • Moving sadly to front who, sadly, or to end has died, sadly signal too much importance in what is anyway a parenthesis. The point of the sentence is something the software has kept from us — the wording of Andrea's late friend's remark.

    A third counter-example
    ed every second of the minutes their child sadly died but they were able to have ph
    This is puzzling. At first glance, it's just ungrammatical and incoherent. Looking closer, I'd guess one of two things:
    • This is unplanned, unmonitored speech with a phase omitted which would have expressed the speaker's thoughts — e.g. of the time during which.
    • The speaker has chosen to use died in an unconventional way, where most would say or write lay dying.

    For me that pattern


    is perfectly normal and natural. OK, it may well be over-used, but that's an entirely different reason for objecting to it.

  17. Indeed, it is not just Americans who find this, well, sad. My good friend Mike Chisholm, as English as they come (despite constant harping on about his Scottish roots), wrote rather amusingly about it in February 2015 in the post No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Sadly Die on his Idiotic Hat blog, the excellence of which is underlined by the fact that it is where I first learnt of the existence of this blog.

  18. To clarify, the patter I find perfectly normal and natural is

    SUBJECT sadly died ADVERBIAL.

  19. 'Sadly' appears elsewhere, eg this from the 'Guardian' on 18 February:

    'Salisbury MP John Glen said: “Thankfully, it [the flag] has been removed now – what a stupid stunt – mocking the serious events sadly experienced in Salisbury last year.”'

  20. the serious events sadly experienced in Salisbury last year

    This is a different use of sadly from he sadly died last week.

    This use of the adverb is an integral part of the reduced relative clause

    [which were] sadly experienced in Salisbury last year

    Sadly here is grammatically integrated — not just semantically.

    • It can be the answer to a question: How were the events experienced?

    • It can be singled out for emphasis : It was sadly that the events were experienced

    • It can be the focus of negation: The events weren't experienced sadly. They were experienced angrily.

    Contrasts this with John Glen's first word thankfully

    • It can't be the answer to How has the flag been removed?

    * It can't be singled out It has been thankfully that the flag has been removed

    • It can't be the focus of negation The flag hasn't been removed thankfully. It has been removed unfortunately.

    I've discovered yet another sets of terms for the difference, which is possibly more user-friendly than the others.

    CIRCUMSTANCE ADVERBIALS the most common use integrated in the clause
    — such as the events were sadly experienced i Salisbury klast year

    STANCE ADVERBIALS when the adverbial (which may be a one-word adverb) is less integrated
    — such as Thankfully, the flag has been lowered. Sadly, he died last week.

    Stance adverbials need not necessarily be placed first. Mr Glen could also say
    The flag thankfully has been lowered
    The flag has thankfully been lowered.
    The flag has been lowered, thankfully

    The terms CIRCUMSTANCE and STANCE are from The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English

  21. A note here (for those following) that I've added a paragraph to the post, allowing that it might not be journalists who are responsible for this phrase, but the police.

  22. Police reports (at least, the verbal summaries that I have seen on TV News programmes in the UK) do seem to have some odd turns of phrase - such as: ‘Mr X has seen a fight in the street, has investigated and as a result of his injuries has sadly died’.
    Does anyone agree that the choice of past tense is rather odd? I would have said that ‘he saw an incident’, etc etc

  23. Here in Australia, where our language has some overlap with each of British and US English, and some of our own variations, I have long heard the euphemisms "passed away" and "passed on", but I don't remember "passed over", as mentioned in one of the contents above. Where is that version used?

    Also, in the last two or three years, I have found myself more and more frequently hearing people refer to someone who died as having "passed". Is this particularly ugly turn of phrase common elsewhere?

    1. I have heard Canadians say that. It's really ugly, isn't it? It leaves you expecting a direct object. Opportunities for puerile humour abound - I'll leave those to your imagination...

    2. In the US, the full phrase "passed over to the other side" is sometimes used for death, but it's not widely used in just the shortened form "passed over." I think "passed over" just by itself would probably be understood as not getting a job promotion or something similar. In fact, when I googled "passed over," it autofilled to "passed over for promotion."

    3. I think I first heard it ('passed over') in an episode of 'Morse' (UK TV series) - so this would be several years ago. Morse made a scathing remark about the euphemism. But I heard somebody say it on BBC radio just a few days ago.

    4. The two-word verb must surely have been popularised by Pilgrim's Progress.

      After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons by the same post as the other, and had this for a token that the summons was true, "That his pitcher was broken at the fountain." When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, "Death, where is thy sting?" And as he went down deeper, he said, "Grave, where is thy victory?"
      So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

    5. Boy, is that passage full of cliches (much like Hamlet). :-)

      I think though that Bunyan meant passed over to be understood as passed over the river, part of the literal sense.

  24. As an American, the only thing that bothers me about this is the position of sadly. I'd expect it to be at the start of the sentence instead of right before the verb, where I am more likely to parse it as modifying the verb instead of the whole sentence.

  25. Just in case it hasn't been remarked upon in the comments so far, no native British speaker would discern any 'ambiguity (is it sad that he died, or was he sad when he died?)' in the phrase 'sadly died'. For the deceased to be sad at death, the word order would have to be 'died sadly'.

    1. JB, this British speaker does discern an ambiguity.

      The reason I immediately interpret it to mean 'It's sad that he died' is that the other interpretation is such an unlikely proposition. The interpretation 'He was sad when he died' becomes more plausible if you supplement the bare adverb. For example
      He silently, sadly died .

  26. Crystal Hernandez26 February, 2019 20:10

    I am also someone who "unfortunately" uses "hopefully" often. I think that it may be a learned habit of speaking that I learned from my family members. We know that children soak up and learn things, behaviors and speech from their surroundings. So who thinks that this way of speaking is something that we learned out of habit?

  27. In an earlier post, various people mentioned ending an e-mail wth “thanks in advance”. I have used this format, but I am just as likely to say “hopefully, you will be able to help wth ...”. Sadly, their is no guarantee that either approach will work

  28. Revisiting the thread to read a new post, I was suddenly reminded of the phrase

    sadly lacking in...

    The person so-described is seldom if ever sad. The person doing the describing does pretend to be.

    Writing this reminds me of another phrase

    sadly mistaken

    as in

    If that's what you think, you're...
    They turned out to be...

    On the obituarial theme we speak of someone as

    sadly missed.

    Nedless to say, it isn't the deceased who is sad.

  29. I just put your book on my Amazon wish list.

  30. According to the British Newspaper Archive, "sadly died" steadily become more popular from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, before peaking in 2005. Here is a little graph to demonstrate this.

  31. Late to the party I know, but this is really ridiculous.'X sadly died' doesn't mean 'I am sad about X dying', it's more like 'regretfully, X died'. No one reads it like 'dear readers, a great tragedy has befallen us and I am overcome with is with the heaviest of hearts that I must inform you of the passing of our beloved friend, X'. Honestly it reads very neutrally. It's sombre and formal, certainly not loaded with emotion in any way. And as others have already made clear, in the British Englishes it is completely unambiguous.

  32. 'regretfully, X died'

    So X died full of regret?

  33. I've lived in Britain most of my 65 years and I agree with you, I think "he sadly died" is an abomination unless the writer actually means "he died sadly" in which case that's what the writer should have written. "Sadly, he died" is all right in context but only when the context allows that comma.

    Just don't get me started on "passed away". When I die, as I surely will because it's the one certain thing in anybody's life, I intend to die. I won't be going anywhere, I'll be so much decaying organic matter and I have no problem with that.

  34. Am I the only one here who reads "He sadly died..." as meaning, "He died in a sad manner..."? I did not see this interpretation anywhere above, perhaps I missed it. To me, it is the most natural reading.

    A sad manner of death could mean many things, of course. Painful, unfortunate, tragic, unexpected or some other manner could be considered sad by the writer. I would never have interpreted the phrase as having a principal meaning that the dead person was sad.

  35. "Sadly" is a sort of ellipsis, that means "It is saddening that," just as "hopefully" is an ellipsis of "It is to be hoped that."

    But the problem is that "sadly" being the adverb of choice when someone hath shuffled off the mortal coil is simply laziness. We are supposed to feel the John Donne "everyone's death diminishes me" sentiment. It is as though the "sadly" addition is either a virtue signal ("I am sad that...", whether you actually are or are not, feeling that you should say that merely for politeness's sake), or it is a moral scolding ("YOU should feel sad, even though you may not actually feel that way.").

  36. Hi Lynne, This is only tangential to this post, but I wanted to ask --
    There is currently a debate raging among the family members of a friend of mine who's recently died about whether "passed away" is AmE. Do you know?

  37. So pleased to come across this blog about a phrase which winds me up with being overused, and badly. I wince every time I'm told that 'X sadly died' wondering why X couldn't die happily like everyone else presumably does!

  38. I come from Indian English where 'sadly' tends to be used at the beginning of a sentence, suffixed with a comma, and unambiguously interpreted as a comment on what follows, as in "sadly, the younger generation doesn't know the meaning of integrity" or "sadly, he died before finishing his final work." Even if someone were to say "he sadly passed away...," etc., 'sadly' would most often be used synonymous with 'unfortunately'in such usage, and rarely comes across as either inappropriately weak or gratuitous. "Sad demise" is another style used here, as in "the nation mourns his sad demise."

  39. Drats, I just wrote a post, and because I'd inserted a link I pressed "Preview" and the whole thing vanished! Let's try again, and hope I get the link right. I have just read an article on Londonist which reminded me of this post, as in the blurb about a stained-glass window depiction of a clown, they wrote: "The basement of the church even used to house a clown museum, before it sadly closed owing to building safety concerns."


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)