Thursday, June 16, 2011

Unlikely story

Poor old "likely." No matter how often it produces the birth certificate (which it's apparently been doing since the 14th century), somebody's still going to proclaim that it isn't a real adverb -- at least, not unless accompanied by "very" or some other adult guardian.

Bierceologist Jan Freeman credits this peeve to "Write it Right" a century ago, but it's going strong today. The street edition of the NYT style manual says the "she will likely go" construction is "dialect," by which it apparently means "something the lesser breeds say"; the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage calls that construction "well established in standard general use in North America." Stylewise, adverbial "likely" belongs firmly in the middle range. You don't have to like it or use it yourself, but you can't ban it on grammar grounds.

Evidence-based conclusions about language aren't a license to do whatever you want, though, as illustrated by the lede above. "Likely won't" looks pretty well established, and the adjectival "likely to be gone" in the hed is fine, but "unlikely will offer contracts" is out of bounds. You wonder where the editors were -- though you really don't anymore, do you?

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Anonymous Ed Latham said...

But you see what happens? Give 'em a descriptivist inch with 'likely' and they take a mile. In 2050, we'll all be defending 'unlikely will' as having been in use since 2011, (grumble, grumble...)

12:52 PM, June 16, 2011  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Seriously - what happened to the rule of using the infinitive for future in heds? "Unlikely to" would have been just fine!

(which makes me wonder if it was changed...)

7:28 PM, June 16, 2011  

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