linguistics and lexicography Love English

Is there a case for ‘publically’ (or ‘economicly’)? Part 2

According to Wikipedia, publically is an example of morphemic pleonasm. A pleonasm is normally understood as an utterance that contains one or more redundant elements that do not contribute to the meaning. (There, I just did one!) Common examples are true fact, Great Britain, or choose deliberately. A morpheme is part of a word that contributes to its structure and thereby its meaning. For example, the word unbelievable consists of three morphemes: un – believ – able , all of which are essential to its overall meaning. In public– al-ly, the –al- has no particular function and is therefore redundant. (There I go again!) It doesn’t even affect the pronunciation of the word.

One might make the same point about words like tragic-al-ly or athlet-ic-ally, where there is no corresponding adjective ending in –ical which would justify the –ically form on grounds of regularity.

Now, we live in an age which does not value morphemic pleonasm. For instance, in my class today, we were looking at the language of business emails and came across this sentence:

If you cd let me have the cash today, it wd be much appreciated. (My emphasis.)

Why bother with the –oul- if your meaning is perfectly clear? This kind of abbreviation is typical of the language of text messaging, Twitter, etc.

With this trend in mind, I went back to the frequency list of –icly words in the three corpora. Sure enough, although publicly is still way out in front, other, non-standard –icly forms seem to be creeping forward. The BNC lists only 8 –icly forms in total, including publicly, with chicly as the only other word enjoying more than a single citation. ukWaC lists around 180 forms; enTenTen12 around 1000. Not all this increase can be explained by the increasing size of the corpora.

The outrider for this trend seems to be the spelling basicly, rising from 0.1 words per million in ukWaC to 0.2 in enTenTen12. (The forms automaticly and specificly have also recorded significant jumps in frequency.) One explanation may be that basic(al)ly is very common in spoken language, and thus carries over readily to text messaging and social media.

While spelling is such a state of flux, we should revel in the possibilities. Turning back to adjectives for a moment, there are a few well-known doublets in English where the distinction between –ic and –ical forms corresponds to a distinction in meaning (economic = relating to economics / economical = frugal, thrifty; historic/historical; magic/magical, etc). However, because of the –ic –> -ically rule, the distinction in form is not maintained at adverb level. Thus, what is one to make of a sentence like this which I found on the Economist website?

My goodness, to think our problems could be solved economically that way would be simply ridiculous and very untrue.

Does the writer mean ‘by means of economics’ or ‘without spending too much money’? If the first meaning could be spelled ‘economicly’ then the ambiguity would be removed.

Who knows whether publicly or publically will be the preferred spelling in 20 years’ time? What is more certain is that publicly has two rather different sets of meanings: one is a ‘matter-of-fact’ meaning concerned with the general public as a social entity (eg. publicly available information a publicly owned health service in MED), while the other is a more ‘evaluative’ meaning concerned with being open, loud, or drawing attention to oneself (eg. I hate it when she talks like that publicly in MED). Wouldn’t it be nice if we could reserve publicly for the first set of meanings and publically for the second? This would enable us to draw a distinction between:

They publicly announced their engagement.
They (very) publically announced their engagement.

No doubt this publicly available blog post will arouse the ire of the spelling purists, so perhaps don’t mention it too publically to your friends.

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John Williams


  • I came across Part 1 because I was trying to figure out which spelling of public(ly/ally) I should be using (after thirty years of never wondering about it previously), but your post sounded so hopeful and so lonely that I couldn’t help but try to give it some company. I like the idea of such a distinction!

    But frankly I would trade it and any other improvements you care to name for a set of second-person pronouns. I would kill for that.

  • I like the idea of a distinction between publicly and publically as you suggest – but wouldn’t it require first that we start using the word “publical” to refer to the loud behaviour? (e.g. “He was very publical about his feelings”, “We’re going publical with the announcement next week”)

  • I posted a tongue-in-cheek comment in response to Part 1, but I think Part 2 moves the whole conversation on (which is of course the obvious point of it) – I like the suggestion of distinct meanings for ‘ly’ and ‘ally’ endings, alongside the “publical” caveat from Patrick. But again, there will be calls for a rule or rules for such usage, and no doubt some/many/most people will get confused…

  • Love this! Well-written, well-researched and an easily-Googled answer to my question if ANY -icly adjectives exist!!

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