Is there a case for ‘publically’? Part 1

Posted by on October 15, 2012

Recently, while proofreading an internal document, I was taken to task by a colleague for correcting the spelling of ‘publically’ to ‘publicly’:

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.

Comments (23)
  • 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).

    Posted by Stan on 16th October, 2012
  • 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”. :-)

    Posted by John Williams on 16th October, 2012
  • Posted by Kim on 17th October, 2012
  • 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.

    Posted by John Williams on 18th October, 2012
  • [...] there a case for publically or [...]

    Posted by Link love: language (48) « Sentence first on 15th November, 2012
  • Hi, John

    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.

    Posted by Marcos M. Ventura on 20th March, 2013
  • 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.

    Posted by Stephen on 21st March, 2013
  • 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.

    Posted by Richard Mason on 3rd April, 2013
  • 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.

    Thank you.

    Posted by a farker on 25th April, 2013
  • 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.

    Posted by J Sebastian on 6th May, 2013
  • 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?

    Posted by John Williams on 7th May, 2013
  • I started reading this when I was critiqued for using “publically” in a letter to our UU Fellowship’s Board of Trustees. I agree with much of what’s been posted, and certainly with the recent comment that variation and change are an intrinsic feature of language.

    To add an interesting piece of data, I note that my 1969/1978 American Heritage Dictionary lists both”frantically” and “franticly”, in that order, but that the 2000 edition has “frantically” as the only listed form of the adverb.

    Posted by Ron Malzer on 29th May, 2013
  • I’m still waiting for a response to Richard Mason’s point about “horrific” and “horrifically”.

    Earlier, Marcos Ventura explained the reason we don’t use statisticly, tragicly, or athleticly may be that statistical, tragical, and athletical are synonyms of the base words statistic, tragic, and athletic. So it is justified to spell the adverbs statistically, tragically, and athletically. As a result, spelling the adverb publicly is justified as publical is not a synonym for public.

    However, that does not address Richard Mason’s very good point. To my knowledge, horrifical is not a synonym for horrific, but we spell the corresponding adverb horrifically rather than horrificly.

    Publicly just feels horrific and looks awkward to my eye.

    Posted by Mark on 12th June, 2013
  • To me publically feels horrific and so maybe someone should establish which side of the Atlantic we are all on! Different shores I suspect.

    Oxford English Dictionary says no to the -ally form!!

    Anyway change does happen but beware it’s not used to justify every bit of inaccuracy & sloppiness. Or why should we care? That argument will run for ever.

    Posted by Pamela F on 3rd October, 2013
  • Pamela F: The OED doesn’t say no to ‘publically’; it gives it as an alternative to ‘publicly’. I’m sorry to hear that you think ‘publically’ is horrific; you must have an extremely low horror threshold!

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 4th October, 2013
  • Hi Pamela,

    Which side of the Atlantic are you on? I am in the UK.

    What is it that you find horrific about ‘publlcally’? It does follow a normal rule of adverb formation and there is no loss of meaning.

    Google Ngram Viewer suggests that ‘publically’ is more or less equally used on both sides of the Atlantic. There is some evidence that ‘publicly’ is making a comeback, but I doubt that this is because more people are consulting the OED, more likely that ‘-icly’ spellings are becoming more frequent generally. See Part 2 of this article. Warning: You may find this horrificly horrific. :-)

    Thanks too for your contribution Jonathan.

    John

    Posted by John Williams on 13th October, 2013
  • As someone who has a tendency to pronounce words close to their spelling, I have to remind myself that spoken language preceded writing by millennia. So, notwithstanding the vagaries of English pronunciation, I think it’s generally a good idea if spelling is as close as possible to speech.

    Does anyone actually pronounce “publicly” with four syllables: “pub-lic-al-ly”? If not, I prefer the spelling “publicly”.

    Posted by Alan Stinchcombe on 4th December, 2013
  • Alan: What about words like ‘basically’, ‘ironically’, ‘practically’, ‘realistically’, ‘specifically’? These are usually pronounced with no vowel before the ‘-ly’, so maybe they should be written ‘basicly’, ‘ironicly’ etc.? (See Part 2 of John Williams’ article.) You say you “have a tendency to pronounce words close to their spelling”, and that you think it’s “generally a good idea if spelling is as close as possible to speech”. Well, if spelling was as close as possible to speech, you’d be able to pronounce words close to their spelling. The way things are, though, pronouncing words “close to their spelling” would presumably mean pronouncing the ‘t’ in ‘castle’, the ‘k’ in ‘knee’, the ‘p’ in ‘psychology’ etc.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 5th December, 2013
  • Hi,

    I just stumbled across this website whilst looking up the spelling of ‘publically’ after using the ‘ally’ form in a post on eBay’s forum asking for help with the bidding system…suffice to say I’m not a scholar and I don’t have any professional insight to offer on the subject! I’m British and have studied language growing up (German/English) and have recently begun learning a new language (Spanish). I’m completing a degree soon for Modern Languages so whilst I’m not an expert in the matter, I wouldn’t say I’m a complete ‘noob’ either.

    I spelled (spelt?!) the word as ‘publically’ and suddenly had the strange feeling that I was using an archaic spelling of the word or alternatively, that I had spelled it completely wrong.

    I used to think that there were hard and fast rules with language and that spelling was either right or wrong with no grey area. Having completed a linguistics course as part of my degree, I don’t feel any more intelligent but I definitely stopped judging spelling and grammar so harshly.

    As long as you are understood and following the alphabet and basic grammatical rules, it really shouldn’t matter. English spelling and pronunciation is pretty shocking anyway. “Minute” has two pronunciations depending on the meaning. Surely one of those spellings must be wrong then? Why not spell one “mynute”?

    What about “cough”, “rough”, “stuff”, “mouth”, “you”, “bow”, “tow”, “row” (two pronunciations again).

    The point I’m making here (I hope anyway), is that I always feel a bit daft for criticising people’s spellings when we don’t have any genuine hard and fast rules anyway! I know there’s always an exception to the rule but I think we take the p*ss a little bit with that! If it’s okay to spell the word “word” as “word” instead of “werd” or “whirred” or “wird” or “wurd” despite there being no other words I can think of in common every day use that are pronounced the same but with a different letter at the beginning (examples: “lord”, “sword”, “cord”), then I think “publically” is fine considering how many words exist using “ally” under similar conditions.

    I think there are words with odd or even ‘incorrect’ spellings which should receive more attention and debate than “publically”.

    Anyway, I’ve decided to stick with “publically” :-)

    Posted by Elle on 23rd February, 2014
  • Thanks for your post Elle. I’m glad that your notions of correct spelling and grammar are being shaken up a bit. That’s partly the point of these articles!

    You raise a few interesting points.

    > “Minute” has two pronunciations depending on the meaning. Surely one of those spellings must be wrong then? Why not spell one “mynute”?

    This phenomenon is called homography (Greek: same writing) – two (or more) words having the same spelling but different pronunciations. The usual reason why homographs persist is that there is there is no possibility of confusion in context. But maybe you have a point in this case; what would you expect if you saw ‘minute steak’ on a menu? A small one, or one that only took a minute to cook? (I can imagine an unscrupulous restaurateur taking advantage of this…)

    > If it’s okay to spell the word “word” as “word” instead of “werd” or “whirred” or “wird” or “wurd” …

    It had never occurred to me that ‘whirred’ was pronounced the same as ‘word’ (except maybe in Scottish dialects) so thanks for that. These pairs are called homophones (Greek: same sound).

    > I spelled (spelt?!) the word…

    Google Ngrams, mentioned by Stan at the top, tells us that both forms coexist in British English, but that ‘spelled’ is far more frequent in American English.

    > I think there are words with odd or even ‘incorrect’ spellings which should receive more attention and debate than “publically”.

    I couldn’t agree more. Do you have any other suggestions? They need to get an airing publically.

    John

    Posted by John Williams on 27th February, 2014
  • Hi John,

    I understand homographs and the reasons why there are various spellings for the same word having completed a linguistics course (which was when I stopped judging spelling as much). The majority of my post was written with a kind of ironic undertone. I was addressing people who have posted from a prescriptivist perspective to try and show that there are many oddities in English spelling even in their own posts which are ignored because we have grown up with the language and don’t notice the irregularities in our own spelling. I have lived in Leeds and Newcastle and have family from all around the world and other than a few I’ve met who try to pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘whirred’, everyone else pronounces ‘whirred’ and ‘word’ the same but the point wasn’t about how these words are pronounced as some of them weren’t even words I think(!), it was more about just showing how they ‘could be’ spelled using our own English spelling rules. A lot of people know about the famous ‘ghoti’ spelling of ‘fish’ based on ‘gh’ being pronounced ‘f’ in words like ‘trough’, ‘o’ being pronounced as ‘i’ (in fish) in words like ‘women’ and ‘ti’ being pronounced as ‘sh’ in words like ‘ration’.

    More examples of our peculiar spellings are:

    ‘more’, ‘moor’, ‘raw’, ‘door’, ‘boar’, ‘gnaw’, ‘sure’, ‘for’ (same vowel sound, many different spellings except ‘gnaw’ which also ends with ‘aw’ but shows another peculiarity!)

    ‘prey’, ‘pray’ (should we just pick one and stick with it?!)

    ‘bye’, ‘buy’, ‘by’, ‘sigh’, ‘lie’ (how many spellings for this ‘i’ sound do we need?)

    ‘but’, ‘mutt’, ‘soot’, yet; ‘moot’

    ‘newt’, ‘flute’, ‘suit’, ‘loot’, ‘beaut’ (‘ew’, ‘u’, ‘ui’, ‘oo’, ‘(e)au’ all pronounced the same in these words)

    Yet:

    ‘sewn’, ‘curve’, ‘conduit’, ‘look’, ‘beau’

    Of course, accent plays a part so I should say that I’ve used words applicable to my own accent to highlight my point.

    Worrying about how to spell ‘publically’ is more or less at the bottom of my list but I really love discussions like these and whilst our spelling is quite annoying, I see it as a wonderful homage to all of the various influences (/ invasions) over the course of our history and I’m quite proud of it. I also think that there are other languages which could do with carrying out some (more) reforms before we do…in particular German comes to mind. I love German and have been speaking it since I was a child but those genders need reforming urgently! At least with Spanish it’s mostly just feminine for words ending with ‘a’ and masculine for words ending with ‘o’. There are exceptions of course, but in every day speech, you’re looking at a relative handful. German though…wow. Try figuring out the word to use for ‘which’ in a German sentence if you’ve just started learning; it’s bloody difficult!

    Posted by Elle on 27th February, 2014
  • I tell my readers that all adjectives that can end either on -ic or -ic-al must retain the -al in the adverb. The ones that do not allow the -al do not need it in the adverb. Since there is no *publical or *political in the sense of politic, it should not be artificially inserted.

    Posted by Robert Beard on 30th July, 2014
  • Good to have a word from Dr Goodword!

    How infrequent does the ‘-ical’ form have to be before you say ‘it does not allow the -al’? ‘Basical’, ‘athletical’, and ‘authentical’ are all rare, but ‘basic’, ‘athletic’, and ‘authentic’ still spell their adverbs ‘-ically’.

    Conversely, ‘publically’ has been around since the 18th century, albeit infrequently.

    Posted by John Williams on 30th July, 2014
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