I’m currently reading James Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns (Bloomsbury Press, 2011): fascinating and intriguing, and I find myself nervously watching my own pronoun use as I write (too many first person pronouns already in this first sentence to come across as authoritative!). But this post is not about pronouns. I was looking for examples of the use of likely as an adverb, similar to possibly or probably, as I seem to stumble over them these days whenever I spot them.
That is odd, because the OED cites quotations from the 14th century, with Wycliffe as the first recorded user. Adverbial likely is simply part of the English language, and always has been. An example from Pennebaker, who uses adverbial likely quite frequently, is the following:
Their errors will likely be in their use of style words rather than any nouns or regular verbs (2011:29).
Am I the only one who is noticing them? I’m reminded in all this of the history of the split infinitive, which was part of the usage survey conducted by Mittins et al. (1970), and which we are asking your opinion about in our usage poll number 6 (see above). The split inifinitive, too, is traced back to Wycliffe, and has been attracting criticism since the first decades of the 19th century. Richard Bailey, in Nineteenth-Century English (University of Michigan Press, 1996), traced the origin of the stricture against the split infinitive to 1834, and he cites the New England Magazine as first complaining about the usage and attributing it to “uneducated persons” (1996:248).
Burchfield, in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford, 1996), writes that “in standard [British?] English [adverbial likely] is almost always qualified by another adv., esp. more, most, quite, or very but just as often stands without an adverbial prop in AmE” (1996:460). In the same year, the usage had attracted the attention of John Honey. In a letter to Frances Austen, dated 15 February 1996, Honey wrote:
On likely, I meet the adverbial use every week, now that I listen regularly to CNN’s and ABC’s (TV) news bulletins from the USA, which are received here several times a day. I began by recording instances of adverbial likely, but gave up as they were so frequent and I assumed that this is completely standard in AmE. Just before I sat down to write to you, I noted this:
“Even if it had no nutritional value it would likely be just as popular” – item on eating of chili in Mexico. CNN 15.2.96
Uses in the UK might be either the influence of dialect, or yet another example of the pervasive influence of AmE.
Whereas Burchfield merely comments on differences between British (presumably) and American usage, Honey is more critical of what he calls “the pervasive influence of AmE”. Is American influence still viewed as a negative force affecting British English usage today? It is one of the three pet hates in English listed by BBC news writers and journalists (see elsewhere in this blog).
The story of adverbial likely looks very similar to that of the split infinitive, except that CNN news writers could hardly be called “uneducated persons”. What are our readers’ views on this? To find out, please fill in this extra poll, and leave your views on adverbial likely for us to read.
With thanks to Frances Austin for presenting me with her copies of John Honey’s letters to her.