Is there a case for ‘publically’? Part 1Posted by John Williams on October 15, 2012
Speaking radicly for the moment, but probably both logicly and statisticly soundly (though tragicly for traditionalists, I know), I think publically is a better spelling.
In a sense, we each had a point. My colleague was (in ironic mode) simply deferring to the general rule that adjectives ending in –ic form adverbs by adding –ally: tragic –> tragically, athletic –> athletically. I was following the advice of most dictionaries, which give publicly as the correct form, with publically as a less frequent, non-standard variant. (Publically does not feature at all in the Macmillan English Dictionary.) The dictionaries are consistent with the corpus evidence: in the British National Corpus (compiled early 1990s), publicly is more than 150 times more frequent than publically.
Given the pressures of conformity and consistency in language, for irregularities to be gradually ironed out, one might expect the frequency gap between publicly and publically to narrow over time. There is some evidence for this: by the time of the ukWaC corpus (2007), the gap was less than 40 to 1 and the general frequency of publically in the corpus had risen from 0.1 words per million to 0.4. According to the latest English corpus available through SketchEngine (enTenTen 2012), the gap has narrowed again to less than 20 to 1, and the frequency of publically has reached 0.8 words per million.
The persistence of publicly as the preferred spelling is a puzzling anomaly. It is the only standard word in the language to end in –icly. I have not been able to find any historical explanation for this, and would be grateful for any suggestions from readers. I am wondering, however, whether the gradual rise of publically might be about to meet a different trend coming the other way… I’ll say more about this in Part 2.
I’m glad you’ve written about this, John. I come across publically now and then while proofreading, and though I automatically change it to publicly to conform with the norm, I’ve always been curious about the anomaly. Google Books ngrams show the non-standard form rising steeply since the 1960s in both BrE and AmE.
It makes sense that logically, radically and statistically are spelt thus, because their adjectival forms are already suffixed with -al. But the pattern doesn’t hold across the board (though tragical has some currency).
Thanks for your comment Stan. I’ll take a look at those google n-grams. As you rightly note, the -ally pattern still holds even when the -ical adjective is extremely rare or unattested – eg. athletical*, basical*. Incidentally, you can achieve an instant Dr Johnson effect by mixing up your -ics, -icals, and -icks: “a discourse on matters grammatic and linguistical for the edification of the general publick”.
How about staticly? It is rare, but occurs in books: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=staticly&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=0&smoothing=0.
Thanks Kim. ‘Staticly’ doesn’t feature at all in the BNC, but is attested in each of of the other corpora I mention. However, ‘statically’ is much more frequent in each case. The one I would hesitate over is ‘epicly’ or ‘epically’. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite right that such as short adjective as ‘epic’ should double in length when it forms its adverb. Sadly, I am not supported by the corpora, where ‘epically’ is the more frequent form.
[...] there a case for publically or [...]
I was wondering today about this topic and I hope I can contribute to the discussion showing a different point of view.
One of the construction rules of adverbs, as far as I know, is done by using an adjective as root and adding the suffix “ly”, not “ally”. So, the construction of the words statistically, tragically and athletically, doesn’t seem to come from statistic, athletic and tragic, but from their variants that can be found in a dictionary: statistical, athletical and tragical. What I mean is that I am not aware of a rule that says that “-ic” endings gets an “ally” suffix. I believe the rule is simpler that that.
Considering this rule, I couldn’t find “publical” as a variant for “public” in the dictionary to justify the existence of “publically”, thus making it normal to use “publicly” instead. Perhaps, “publically” would be the anomaly, justifying its scarceness.
But another question arises… Why did we have the feeling that “publicly” was wrong, instead of “publically”? Maybe because our brain works a lot using analogies, and there are lots of adverbs that end with “ally”, like the ones you’ve shown. I had the same feeling that you had, that there was something very wrong with “publicly”, but going “back to basics” made me realize why these words are built like this.
That’s an interesting angle, Marcos. OED has entries for forms such as athletical, aesthetical, apologetical, phlegmatical, patriotical, suggesting that the adverbs originally derived from these ~ical forms. But there are no ~ical forms listed for acerbical, acrobatical, opportunistical or publical. The etymology for aesthetically is given as “either aesthetical adj + -ly suffix or aesthetic adj +ally suffix”, and the etymology for opportunistically is given unambiguously as “opportunistic adj +ally suffix”. So -ally is a recognised suffix, and publicly remains anomalous, being an adjective ending in -ic which forms its adverb with -ly instead of -ally.
I consider myself a good speller in general.
My instinct is to spell the word “publically.” Doing this and then being told I was wrong and “publicly” was the accepted spelling was traumatic for me… so traumatic that it shook my confidence in my spelling of other adverbs!
I recently wrote an important letter where I used the word “horrifically.” Then I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking I might have blundered in this important document. Maybe it’s “horrificly”? There’s no word “horrifical”!
Thank you for this article which, I feel, reassures me that I’m not crazy.
This is the best post on the entire internet. I always spell publicly publically and I’ve never figured out why.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I have cancelled all my therapy appointments.
I consider myself a premier speller, and am horrified of the use of ‘publically’. I’m a corporate lawyer and seeing it for the first time from a junior associate. How can someone who has ever read a newspaper spell ‘publicly’ ‘publically’? It’s always publicly. Let’s just abolish this alternate.
Good to see that this thread is still attracting comments. Many thanks to all recent contributors.
@ J Sebastian: What is it that ‘horrifies’ you about the spelling ‘publically’? Change and variation are part and parcel of language, surely?
“Let’s just abolish this alternate.” How would you go about that?