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Posted by Austin Morris on UTC 2015-12-15 15:07.

Likely causing problems

We don't read and write according to grammatical rules: we get used to certain formulations as being acceptable and they flow unremarked through our brains.

Sometimes, however, we stumble over expressions that by their novelty – to us, at least – force us to stop and think about the grammar behind them.

My alarm went off several times this morning whilst reading an article about the skin follicle mites, Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis. (Yes, I know, I know – why am I wasting my life on this rubbish when I could be following the doings of the Kardashian family? It's a tough question to answer, that.) In this one article alone my poor old brain had to cope with three examples of a particular use of the word likely. Here they are:

  1. Trautwein says that mites were likely along for that much later series of journeys off the continent.
  2. We seem to share mites primarily with our family, so it likely takes very close physical contact to transmit mites.
  3. Realizing that everyone has them and they're likely not causing any problems, it's pretty reassuring.

If in these sentences I replace likely with probably my brain floats over these locations with equanimity. My problem seems to be that the grammar processor in my brain does not accept likely as an adverb. Consider: An event (substantive) or a case (substantive) can be probable (adjective), whereas verbs such as be, take or cause have to be qualified by an adverb, in which case we use probably.

Similarly, an event (substantive) or a case (substantive) can be likely (adjective). But my processor rebels at likely as an adverb, even though it ends with the characteristic adverb suffix -ly. Perhaps it is now being used as an adverb just because of the suffix.

Interestingly – for me, at least – had the author written most likely no alarms bells would have rung: in this case most is an adverb that can quite conventionally govern the adjective likely, so grammar honour would have been satisfied.

This muddling up of likely I find regrettable, particularly when repeated so often that it becomes a verbal tic, but there is no clinching argument that can be used against it. My advice: stick to probably.

Whilst we are at it

There were quite a number of other things wrong in this article, which may be a lesson to me to stick to pieces about the Kardashians in future. Let's make a brief list of these barbarisms:

  • Trautwein says that mites were likely along for that much later series of journeys off the continent.
    I assume the source phrase was to come along for the ride, which now seems to have shrunk into the idiotic to be along [for the ride].
  • Human faces host two species of mites Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis and they aren't that close of relatives.
    a) Surely and should be but. b) The phrase they aren't that close of relatives should be they are not such close relatives or they are not closely related.
  • Realizing that everyone has them and they're likely not causing any problems, it's pretty reassuring.
    If you use a 'verbal noun' (a.k.a. 'gerund') such as realizing then you can reference it directly: Realizing that everyone has them is pretty reassuring. The it is unnecessary.

That is quite enough for one day. Need to go and cleanse my pores.