Probably Likely

A change that likely needs making

Now that the health care bill is through Congress, President Obama “likely” will sign it soon, opponents “likely” will challenge it in the courts, and some readers “likely” are grinding their teeth.

No, not at the health care bill, though that’s “likely,” too.

There are those who believe that “likely” can’t be used without a modifier like “most,” “very,” “more,” etc. Without a modifier, those people will “likely” say, one must write that President Obama “is likely to sign” the bill, and that opponents “are likely to” challenge in the courts.

Those people include Theodore M. Bernstein and his acolytes. “Idiom requires that when ‘likely’ is used as an adverb it be preceded by ‘very,’ ‘quite ‘or’ most.’ As an adjective it needs no companion,” Bernstein wrote, though not in his venerable book Watch Your Language. “Likely” had to wait for his third book, More Language That Needs Watching, which may or may not indicate how strongly he felt about it: “Likely” showed up a lot in Winners & Sinners, the in-house critique of The New York Times.

Indeed, the Times is one of the holdouts insisting on the adverbial modifier: “This construction is dialect: She will likely go,” says The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.

The Associated Press stylebook doesn’t directly address the question, though you won’t “likely” find “likely” used as an adverb without a modifier.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the objection to “likely” as an unadorned adverb might be traced to Ambrose Bierce in the early twentieth century, and the censure grew through the years, though such august publications as The New Yorker were using it fairly regularly. (M-W says it suspects that Bernstein “was finding it in the New York Times so often because it was in fact an established usage.”)

Garner’s Modern American Usage, which did not separately address the question until the third edition, in 2009, says that “it is common to use likely as an equivalent of probably and not to insist on the modifier.” At Stage 5 of the Language-Change Index, Garner’s says, it is “fully accepted,” “(not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).”

There are apparently lots of those still out there, though, because the objections surface regularly. This will “likely” sound like a broken record, but here’s the best advice on the use of “likely”: Careful writers “most likely” should use “probably” in its place if they think their readers will “likely” object to “likely” without a modifier.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.