Likely, adverb or adjective?

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.

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12 Responses to Likely, adverb or adjective?

  1. Chris Stray says:

    Adverbial ‘likely’ I find very irritating, though less so than ‘may’ for ‘might’, and ‘alternate’ for ‘alternative’, both of which threaten to collapse useful and important distinctions of meaning.

    • Fayth ;) says:

      Sorry it is just that on my list of advebs that i have in my textbook it is not in there and I know that there must be much more.Oh I am in the 6th grade and we are learning this right now.If you could tell me that would be great thanks :)

      • Thanks for your comment, Fayth! Perhaps likely is not in your list of adverbs because it can also be an adjective, just like lovely, or brother/sisterly or heavenly. Often, adverbs en in -ly, but there is a group of adjectives that also end in -ly. What does your teacher say? We’d be interested to hear.

  2. Fayth ;) says:

    So you are saying that ‘likely’ is is a adverb ???

  3. Adam Gaunt says:

    I am from the UK and aged 58.
    ‘Likely’ as an adverb sounds and looks entirely incorrect to me. In almost every case I note where it is used as an adverb, I would (probably) use the word ‘probably’. Whenever I hear ‘likely’ used as an adverb, I instinctively want to replace it with the (non–existent) word ‘likelily’ ;-) in order to transform this adjective into an adverb.
    Re-.the comment above from Ingred, I cannot imagine how the word ‘lovely’ might be used as an adverb.
    Regards from London

  4. Alison Gibbs says:

    To me (translator and editor) sentences such as “It would likely be just as popular …” sound so wrong. However, I see them more and more, including in academic writing, and so I suspect that it’s only a matter of time before I hold back on the editorial red ink. But that day has not arrived yet …

  5. Viv Pheasant says:

    Please let us all hold on to ‘likely’ not being used as an adverb. It is driving me crazy…

  6. Hoshang Dastoor says:

    Generally speaking and usually in reality, an adverb in English is derived from a word that I would best describe as its (the adverb’s) “parent” adjective.

    For instance, the adverb “loudly” is derived from the adjective “loud”, which is its parent adjective. So “loudly” means “in a loud manner” (or similar meaning, differently expressed).

    As far as “likely” is concerned, in its adverbial use, what is its parent adjective? I don’t think there is any. So its use as an adverb seems incorrect.

    I suspect that many people not conversant with the finer points of language usage (although otherwise fluent in English) are misled into thinking that “likely” is an adverb just because it ends in “ly”. And such people could be British, American or whatever, so it is not country-specific or ethnicity-specific. Not in the least.

    For me, therefore, “likely” is correctly used solely as an adjective. There are several other words ending in “ly” that are adjectives such as kindly, godly, sprightly, etc. Although most of these adjectives are used exclusively as such (and not also as adverbs), admittedly a very few are used as both adjectives and adverbs. (e.g., “kindly”).

    So, because of these very few “dual parts of speech” words, people may think that it’s OK to use likely as on adverb too. To each her or his own, I say.


    Afterthought: The Internet helps tremendously in proliferating word usage (among an infinity of other things), whether correct or not. The Internet is like fire – handle with care!

    Hoshang Dastoor
    (an Indian Zoroastrian (a Parsi) from Mumbai, India (like Zubin Mehta the, great conductor) }.

  7. Tim says:

    There is an easy test. Adverbs are most often formed by adding -ly to an adjective. So compare the following:

    He’ll probably arrive tomorrow.
    It is probable that he’ll arrive tomorrow.

    So if likely is an adverb, substitute probable and probably with likely and you end up with *like and likely:

    He’ll likely arrive tomorrow. [false usage]
    It is *like that he’ll arrive tomorrow. [nonsense]

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