Whatever Happened to Likely?

I can stand it no longer.

I’ve learned to become tolerant of shopkeepers’ misplaced apostrophes on the pluralised goods offered on their signs. My blood pressure now barely registers a response to seeing yet another failed attempt on Facebook to arrive at the correct there/their/they’re form. I even try not to roll my eyes whenever I hear contestants on ‘Pointless’ answering Xander’s “What do you do?’ question with “So…I’m a <insert job title>”.

I know I should do better. Yes, poor punctuation, lazy misuse of homophones and sentences beginning with prepositions are all, strictly speaking, ‘wrong’ but I also accept the argument that English, like any healthy language is permanently evolving – an advantage it maintains over its more atrophied cousins, German and French. Let’s also recognise that we tend to celebrate the genius, rather than castigate the hooliganism of a certain William Shakespeare who, when the language constrained him, simply made up the word he wanted to use, bestowing dozens of virgin terms to the lexicon. I like and admire Stephen Fry and I try to follow his example of celebrating the freedom of the language rather than condescendingly policing those who succumb to its technical imperfections. Put simply, I’m trying to be a better type of pedant.

I freely admit that some breaches of the grammar code bother me less than others, for reasons beyond my explanation. I can’t seem to summon the same objective ire whenever I consider the famously irregular ‘Star Trek’ line: to boldly split the infinitive where no television show has split it before. I’ve even managed to allow myself the licence to end the odd sentence with a preposition. To paraphrase Churchill, this is the sort of English up with which I will sometimes put.

I really do try to be less judgemental and I acknowledge my lack of consistency in the way I choose to prioritise ‘the rules’. And yet there are still examples that I consider to be beyond the pale.

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s likely that you might not have done until this point. The likely upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more likely that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

Please abide with the over-use. I’m doing it for a reason. Let’s re-run the above paragraph with each gratuitous use of the word ‘likely’ replaced by the adjective ‘probable’.

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probable that you might not have done until this point. The probable upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more probable that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

It works. The words are interchangeable because they’re both adjectives – describing words, to use the teachers’ vernacular that you may dimly remember from school. Unfortunately, the word ‘likely’ has a weakness, a design flaw that has led to its wanton misuse – an escalating level of abuse that is likely to show no sign of slowing.

Here’s the problem: the word ‘likely’ is, I think, fairly unusual in that it is an adjective – a word that describes a thing – that ends with the letters ‘ly’. Cast your mind back to that English lesson in which you learned about the adverb – a word that describes a verb. It’s the word form that mostly ends with the letters ‘ly’. Or, to put it more illustratively, mostly, adverbs are identifiably evident by their most commonly seen characteristic.

Remember the replacement exercise above? The adverbial form of ‘probable’ is (of course) ‘probably’. The rules of grammar stipulate that you can’t replace an adjective with an adverb. This is not a denial of your human rights, it’s just a fact. See what happens:

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probably that you might not have done until this point. The probably upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more probably that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

Clearly, ‘clearly’ is an adverb but, equally clearly, ‘likely’ is not. And yet the word finds itself repeatedly, undeservingly, incorrectly pressed into such service. It should all be so…well, unlikely.

It may not come as the greatest surprise to learn that this particular disruption to the mother tongue is largely American in influence. For a number of years, the phrase “[X] will likely [do Y]” has peppered American news reports. We’re well aware that Americans long ago decided to spell things wrong on purpose and we’ve seen for some time how advertising has seen the need to wage war on adverbs, for colloquial impact and to save those two extra, cumbersome characters – hence, ‘Eat Fresh”, “Drive Smug” etc.

Unfortunately for our hero, rolling news is, by definition, largely speculative in manner, there’s therefore lots of scope to use, incessantly, any word that conveys uncertainty or inconclusiveness – creating the perfect conditions for this linguistic mutation to take hold in the vernacular.

This is wrong on so many levels

This has, in turn, enabled a generation of British journalists who prefer shorter words, want to sound more ‘current’ or who simply know no better, to neglect to defend the Queen’s English and yield to the lexicological inexactitude around them.

To its credit, wiktionary deals with the adverbial use of ‘likely’ under its ‘Etymology 2’ heading, rather pejoratively stating “The adverb is a US usage and does not appear in British English except under direct influence of US practice” and asserting that it is “poor style and an artificial, sometimes pretentious way to imply a sense of erudition”. Conversely, the Cambridge Dictionary states more neutrally that “In American English, and more and more in British English, likely is used as a mid-position adverb (like probably in British English), most commonly between will and a main verb”.

Let’s hope this will be wrong on more than one level

We appear to be at a crossroads, in which some in the field of linguistics consider it to be a vulgarity and others a natural progression. It is, essentially, the same argument that purists and pragmatists have waged since well before Shakespeare’s day. The difference is that Shakespeare knew he was concocting a new word – the key tenet of so-called ‘poetic licence’ is that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

I wish I was able to extend such an appreciation to all who interchange an adjective ending in ‘ly’ with an adverb. I wish it bothered me less. We’re all to some extent inconsistent with the bits of English that we preserve and those we choose to reject. Very few people today use the once standard form of the word ‘to-day’, myself excluded, and yet I find I’m still a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to apostrophes used at the beginning of archaic contractions such as ‘phone, ‘flu or ’twas – to the amazement and, occasionally, the consternation of others.

I know the vast majority of people don’t care enough to worry about stuff like this. I suppose to most of us, language is simply a toolbox to be used as required to fulfil a purpose, unencumbered by precedent or prejudice. I still can’t help but see our mother tongue as an heirloom, a thing of value, handed down to be used and respected, upheld and preserved, As much as I accept the need for language to evolve, I suspect I’ll always be wedded to its sense of permanence, even where it has become fossilised. Does this mean I’ll ever be happy to blur the lines between adjective and adverb, between British English and American English, or succumb to democratic change and reflect the new ways some words are used?

Not bloody likely.