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.Email this Post