Tuesday, March 03, 2015

likely

I'm sure that more than one person has asked me to cover likely, but at this point I can only find an email from Richard B (so apologies to anyone else who feels they should be credited with noticing this one!).  Richard writes:
I've noticed a difference in the way Americans and British use 'likely', as an adverb and an adjective (I think) as in 'I will likely visit at the weekend' vs 'It is likely that I will visit at the weekend'. However, in Britain you'll hear 'I will probably visit at the weekend' and even 'I will most likely visit at the weekend'
You can tell Richard is not American by the (BrE) at the weekend in his example, but that's stuff for another post. This is the kind of thing that Brits are more likely (ho-ho) to notice because they don't use likely to mean 'probable'/'probably' in ways that Americans couldn't, but Americans use it in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb in Britain.

In the American He'll likely visit this weekend, likely is indeed an adverb. Probably is another adverb that might go there, but for me likely sounds more likely than probably, tautologically enough.

In the American and British She is likely to win the Nobel prize, likely is an adjective. How can I tell? The technical answer is because it's the semantic predicate in this clause, following a copula. The less technical demonstration is to notice that you can't substitute the adverb probably in this case:
*She is probably to win the Nobel Prize
(Linguists use * before an example to say it's not a possible expression in the language.) 

But you can substitute the right kind of adjective (i.e. one that can take an infinitive verb after it):
She is happy to win the Nobel Prize
 Adverbs go in adverb places, adjectives go in adjective places. This likely is an adjective.

So far it looks like AmE has likely as an adverb or adjective and BrE has only the adjective. But wait! What's likely doing after most in Richard's other example I will most likely visit...?  It's being an adverb in British (and American) English, that's what! As the OED says, the adverb likely is:

Now chiefly most likely, very likely; otherwise rare exc. Sc. dial., or (freq.) N. Amer.

Yet another usage that has become extinct in (most of) the UK, but has been preserved in AmE.

Going back to adjectives, likely also works in both countries as a pre-nominal ('before the noun') adjective, as in a likely reason for her magnetism is her diet of iron filingsBut there are certain uses of it that the OED claims as more country-specific. First, this one [earliest examples omitted]:

(Now chiefly U.S.) Of young persons (occas. of animals): Giving promise of success or excellence; promising, hopeful.

1793   G. Washington Lett. in Writings (1891) XII. 381,   I am very sorry to hear that so likely a young fellow..should addict himself to such courses.
1863   Advt. in Dicey Federal St. I. 254   He [a fugitive slave] is..stout and well built; very likely.
1883   J. Gilmour Among Mongols xviii. 226   Chinamen go to Mongolia in spring, buy up likely animals.
The most recent example they have of this is from 1883 (but the entry has not been fully updated since the first edition in 1903). I must say, it's not something I'd say.

Next we have:

Of seemly or comely appearance; good-looking, handsome. ? Now U.S. and dial.

I can't say I have that one either, though it has some similarity to the fifth sense in the American Heritage Dictionary. The likely spot example sounds fine to me, but I'd put it with sense 3. Better Half doesn't like the example in 5 though (he says it sounds 'very old-fashioned and Enid Blyton'), so maybe it is different from sense 3 and more American.  
1. Possessing or displaying the qualities or characteristics that make something probable: They are likely to become angry with him. See Usage Note at liable.
2. Within the realm of credibility; plausible: not a very likely excuse.
3. Apparently appropriate or suitable: There were several likely candidates for the job.
4. Apt to achieve success or yield a desired outcome; promising: a likely topic for investigation.
5. Attractive; pleasant: found a likely spot under a shady tree for the picnic.
 On the other side of the Atlantic, we have The Likely Lads. (I'd embedded a YouTube video here, but within hours, embedding had been disabled for that video. So, you'll have to go to YouTube to see it.)

According to Wikipedia (the OED is not as clear for this one):

The word "likely" in the show's title is somewhat ambiguous. In some dialects in Northern England it means "likeable", but it may be derived from the phrase the man most likely to, a boxing expression in common use on Tyneside, hence, in Geordie slang, "a likely lad". Another possible meaning is the ambiguous Northern usage of "likely" to mean a small-time troublemaker.

And that's likely all I have to say on the matter. Until you point out in the comments what I've missed.

60 comments:

Andrew said...

For me the journey of "likely" and "purposely" was the same - started as natural things to say, got told they were wrong, avoided for years, ended up finding they were very common and frankly very useful.

David Crosbie said...

If The Likely Lads wan't supposed to refer to the potential of the young protagonists, why was the sequel called Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

David Crosbie said...

2. Within the realm of credibility; plausible: not a very likely excuse.

Note that this is a negative sentence. This use is surely more common when used ironically to mean the opposite.

A likely story!

Then there's the infamous Pygmalion line:

Not bloody likely!

Kent Wang said...

It sounds similar to the adjective sense of 'concerning', as in "I find many of the comments very concerning". OED says this is valid, but not Webster. Does it make it BrE, or just that Webster has failed to catalog it?

John Cowan said...

When I was growing up in the Northeastern U.S., liable to alternated with likely to. I haven't heard it for a while, though.

Adrian Morgan said...

I have, not surprisingly, never heard of The Likely Lads before. My immediate assumption was to take it in the sense of "likely suspect", as in "if anything odd happens around here it's most likely their fault". Whether this assumption is influenced by me being Australian, or by some kind of unconscious priming, I cannot say.

(Reminds me of the fact that to this day I have no idea what desperate housewives are supposed to be desparate about, and I don't want to, thanks.)

David Crosbie said...

Related to a likely story!...

He'll likely visit this weekend.
Will he heck as like!

She is likely to win the Nobel prize
Is she heck as like!


This use is fairly common in Northern England. Less commonly, I believe we sometimes hear a more positive as like:

Happen as like he'll visit this weekend.
Happen as like she'll win the Nobel prize


[This could be a false memory. Can someone confirm?]

Laura said...

It's interesting that you say "likely sounds more likely than probably" in the American example "He'll likely visit this weekend." I don't know if it's because I'm Canadian, or because I'm of a younger generation (I'm 25), but I'd be more apt to use "probably" in that context. I do say "most likely" as a statement of probability, but in my circles it'd be rare to hear it just as "likely"; the most modifier is always there. As for the difference between "probably" and "most likely", I think I'd consider "most likely" to be a stronger statement of probability than "probably". Or maybe just more formal.

As a total aside, it turns out likely is a great contender for semantic saturation. The more I read it, the more ridiculous it sounds :P

Biochemist said...

I first encountered this use of 'likely' instead of 'probably' about 15 years ago and it seemed to be most common in the scientific literature, which has a strong American presence. I have fought fruitlessly against it when refereeing manuscripts! The phrase 'A is likely a cause of B' could be turned into BrE simply by reversing 'likely' and 'a' ...

The Northern English expressions suggested by David Crosbie are also what I hear - 'Happen them sheep will likely be caught in the snowdrift, mark my words'. In other words, the usage is now dialect or regional - or it was until recently, when even feature writers in the Times use ' likely' instead of 'probably'. I can't bring myself to say anything other than 'most likely' as described above.

Nick Z said...

The 'American' use of likely as an adverb is definitely now in reasonably common use here in the UK as well. I notice it all the time reading the paper, precisely because it is not grammatical for me. The first exampe I came across, from a Guardian article from 2012:
"defining a bank as English or Scottish is likely a futile exercise"

Rachel Ganz said...

Another reference to "likely" as someone likely to do something of quality is the book "A Likely Lad" by Gillian Avery (http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Likely-Lad-Gillian-Avery/dp/0671798677) which I read as a child.

Could I also bring "unlikely" into the discussion as the single word dismissal of any possibility in Br English

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

"Purposely" came up here. Have you covered the increasing use of "purposefully", Lynne?

Stan said...

I didn't grow up with adverbial likely available but adopted it in my 20s, I think, after exposure via AmE. I found it handy and valuable (still do), and decided anyone who objected to it was being silly. West of Ireland speaker, for the record.

Grace said...

@Kent Wang: We say that in the US, too.

And I'd like to second Laura's opinion that in the American example you gave, I would be more likely to use 'probably.' Also of the younger generation, if that's relevant.

Finally, in the three examples listed where 'likely' is used to mean 'promising,' I have no problem at all with the first or the third, but the second feels ungrammatical to me. If I were to use 'likely' in that sense, it would have to be before a noun rather than standing on its own: a likely lad, versus the lad is likely.

Ginger Yellow said...

The 'American' use of likely as an adverb is definitely now in reasonably common use here in the UK as well. I notice it all the time reading the paper, precisely because it is not grammatical for me.

My gut feel as a journalist is that BrE adverbial likely is primarily journalese and not something that would be particularly common in speech.

lynneguist said...

Re the Guardian--if you're reading online it has a lot of AmE content by American authors, so maybe not the best indicator of Britishness (but a conduit for Americanisms into British, possibly). This recent article from The Atlantic discusses it.

I'm unhappy to find that the embedded Likely Lads video is not appearing. Will try to fix this!

As for what else I have covered, don't forget that the blog is searchable! :)

Bill S said...

I'm not from the North-East, but I always thought that a "likely lad" meant a working class lad who wasn't a "Del-boy", nor was he a "no good boyo", but someone who was there to have a good time, to take his chances and opportunities where they happened to occur. The original series of The Likely Lads rans for 3-4 years, if I recall. And ten years later, just to show the enduring appeal of the programme, there was indeed a sequel, called Whatever happened to the Likely Lads? - with the same main cast. The difference was that, ten years on, one of the lads was still a lad, but the other saw himself as very much a middle class junior executive.

The sequel wasn't bad, btw, but it was nowhere near as good as the original.

lynneguist said...

By 'likely sounds more likely than probably', I meant the semantic difference, not the likelihood that someone would say it. So if I say 'likely', I think something is more probable than if I say 'probably'--at least that's my intuition about how I use it.

Dick Hartzell said...

I'm not surprised the younger commenters here, at least on the left side of the Atlantic, express a preference for probably over likely. Somehow I feel certain that was once the case with me, too, but that in my later years, at least in writing, I've come to prefer likely to probably because it has one fewer syllable and is a bit more slim and trim. (Probably sounds fat to me; the corpulent word blob is very nearly lurking in it.)

In any case, once again, Lynne, I've been stunned to discover an ocean-wide gulf in usage about what until now I'd judged a word of absolutely no significance to any anglophone anywhere.

Wrong again!

David Crosbie said...

Lynne

So if I say 'likely', I think something is more probable than if I say 'probably'--at least that's my intuition about how I use it.

My intuition is the precise opposite. I was planning a post in my head before I read your post.

If I say He'll likely visit this weekend or She's likely to win the Nobel prize it means I won't be surprised if he does visit or if she does win the prize.

If I say He'll probably visit this weekend or It's probable that she'll win the Nobel prize it means I will be surprised if he doesn't visit or if she doesn't win the prize.

Kate Bunting said...

The adjectival use of "concerning" as a synonym for "worrying" really jars on me, but it is commonly used in the UK these days. Something that makes you worry doesn't also make you concern, it's a cause for concern.

Mindo14 said...

I am an USA-ian, who would never use likely in the #5 instance, I would have translated the example as a "promising spot".

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I'm from the south of England, and wouldn't use "He'll likely visit at the weekend" - for me, that's very much a Northern construction and not part of my idiolect. "He's likely to visit at the weekend" is possible, but not very likely; I'd more probably use "probably".

The trouble is, of course, that the more I think about it, the less sure I am of what I do say!

David Crosbie said...

I was surprised to see that anybody found a likely lad an unusual expression — or, indeed, that there could be any doubt as to its meaning. It's the regular (some would say clichéed) description used by fictional recruiting sergeants. Shakespeare has Falstaff using it with blatant insincerity while recruiting his ragged band.

OK, the US tradition is of militias and volunteer armies rather than coercion and the King's shilling, but you did use to say a likely boy.

I discovered this when googling "likely boy" Scrooge thinking it was said at the end of A Christmas Carol. It isn't, but what's much more interesting is the number of hits indicating that a likely boy was just as much a set expression over there — in an unfortunate context that you've wisely chosen to forget.

A likely boy is how your not-so-distant ancestors (and presumably ours in the Caribbean) would describe a juvenile male slave that they sincerely valued, or else were seeking a good price for.

Dick Hartzell said...

A likely boy is how your not-so-distant ancestors (and presumably ours in the Caribbean) would describe a juvenile male slave that they sincerely valued, or else were seeking a good price for.

Excellent (Google) detective work, David! You're absolutely right about this heretofore unknown -- to me, anyway -- usage of likely.

I tried the search myself and came upon this poignant classified advertisement placed in the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1864:

Likely boy for sale.

--The owner offers for sale an exceedingly likely and intelligent boy, 14 years of age. He has been raised in the country, and been accustomed both to farm work and the dining-room. Address "A S," Richmond P O.
ap 18--2t

A little context for those of you who may need it: the calamitous Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves from bondage in 1863. And Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the rebel confederacy -- and happened to be a scant 100 miles from Washington, DC, which was still, of course, the capital of the Union.

I looked up likely on Merriam-Webster online and found definitions comparable to those Lynne cited from the American Heritage Dictionary. Interestingly, though, definition #5 fits with the classified advertisement above:

5: attractive <a likely child>

Nick Z said...

@lynneguist: I almost exclusively read the paper in paper format (so much less costly when you drop it in the bath). Of course, there are plenty of Americans who write for the paper version as well, and they may well be the conduit, as you say.

@ Ginger Yellow: very probably - I certainly don't remember having heard it in speech.

Gordon said...

1979, Squeeze, Cool For Cats:

"..And meanwhile at the station
There's a couple of likely lads.."

Alison Hobbs said...

I am a British-Canadian living in Canada, and the adverbial use of "likely" sticks out like a sore thumb to me, too. However (as Richard suggests), if you substitute "most likely" whenever the North Americans would say "likely" the phrases then sound perfectly acceptable. Don't ask me why!

In Canada / USA: "I'll likely visit with her tomorrow."

In Britain: "I'll most likely visit her tomorrow."

(I enjoy reading your blog very much, by the way.)

lynneguist said...

Sorry if it wasn't clear--that's the same point that's being made in the OED entry that I've quoted.

Biochemist said...

So, is a 'likely candidate' someone who will probably stand for election, or one who will probably succeed in being elected? And similarly for a 'likely suspect' for a crime? This post has put doubts in my mind!

David Crosbie said...

Biochemist

For what it's worth, my instincts are:

1. The word candidate cancels out meanings other than 'likely to be a candidate'. I suppose it's because there's no sense of probability in candidature

2. Conversely, the word suspect rules out meanings other than 'suspected in all likelihood to have done it'. Suspicion is in itself a judgement of probability.

For the other meaning, I suppose I'd say likely to fall under suspicion. At a stretch i could just about say He's not a likely suspect, but he could be a likely potential suspect.

Anonymous said...

Biochemist - I'd say (AmE) both definitions work for both words, depending on the contest.

Domain said...

*She is probably to win the prize

She is almost certain to win the prize.

Will someone clear up my non-linguist confusion about why one of these is "not a possible expression"?

The former sounds to me like a 1920's RP-ish BrE expression.

(From UK; 25 years in USA)

lynneguist said...

Good point.

There are 10 'is probably to' in the British National Corpus. And all of them involve a passive infinitive verb that relates to discovery/evidence in some way (so none like 'probably to win'). For example:

The most significant divergence from earlier processes of state formation is probably to be found in the active role of organized political parties

That sounds OK to me, but the following one sounds really weird to me in present-day English:

Eliseg is probably to be dated approximately to the mid-eighth century.

The OED lists this use as 'now rare'. Its last example (1909, which is not to say this is the last time they found it) is:

W. Bateson Mendel's Princ. Heredity (new ed.) xii. 213 The case is more probably to be regarded as a homoeotic variation of the digits into the likeness of the hallux and pollex.


So, perhaps the going-away of this kind of use of 'probably' is related to the going-away of this kind of use of 'likely'?

David Crosbie said...

She is probably to win the prize.
She is almost certain to win the prize.
Eliseg is probably to be dated approximately to the mid-eighth century.


Call me weird but I find all three acceptable and relatively natural.

English has a bunch of multi-word verbs which are partly similar to so-called 'modal auxiliary' verbs such as WILL and MUST.

HAVE TO is extremely close to MUST — largely because MUST has no past tense form. Moreover it's like two different senses:

1 You have to obey the law.
2 You have to be joking!

BE ABOUT TO is similar to WILL and SHALL

BE TO is like all of the above. Let's say there's BE TO 1 and BE TO 2, subdivided into BE TO 2a AND BE TO 2a .

Let's strip away probability and lack of agency.
She is to hand out the prize

BE TO 1 (arrangement)
'Her role will be to hand out the prize'

BE TO 2a (obligation)
'It has been decided that she must hand out the prize'.

BE TO 2b (logical conclusion)
'The only conceivable role for her is to hand out the prize.'

Putting back the lack of agency

She is to win the prize


BE TO 1 (arrangement)
It's already been fixed.

BE TO 2a (obligation)
or else she'll lose her funding

BE TO 2b (logical conclusion)
There's only one reason for her being entered into the competition.

Now that third example is a little unlikely, but it's much more natural to say

BE TO 2b (logical conclusion)
Eliseg is to be dated to the mid-eighth century.

So now let's put the probability back. The adverb probably and the phrases without fail or in all probability have no fixed place within the clause they're tagged on to.

BE TO 1 (arrangement)
It has probably been fixed.
She is to win the prize probably
Probably she is to win the prize.
She is probably to win the prize.
QED

BE TO 2a (obligation)
It's probably a condition for continuing her funding

The same three sentences are possible — but only if the context has been made very clear.

BE TO 2b (logical conclusion)
Eliseg is to be dated to the mid-eighth century, in all probability.
In all probability, Eliseg is to be dated to the mid-eighth century.
Eliseg is in all probability to be dated to the mid-eighth century.


The last sentence differs in two details from the starting-point sentence.

Eliseg is probably to be dated approximately to the mid-eighth century.

In it the adverbs probably and approximately clash — there are too many judgements for the reader to sort out easily. Still, the sentence makes sense to me. And it's perfectly clear after a couple of tweaks

In all probability Eliseg is to be assigned dated a date somewhere around the middle of the eighth century.

Even these tweaks wouldn't be necessary for a someone used to reading specialist works involving archaeology or prehistory.

Dick Hartzell said...

The persistent problem with most of the arguments that appear beneath Lynne's blog posts is that no one bothers distinguishing between what an anglophone would say and what an anglophone could conceivably write.

I, too, started to write a comment last week objecting to the notion that She is probably to win the prize is wrong. But I wasn't prepared to say it was 100% grammatically sound, because, honestly, I wasn't sure. On the other hand, I was sure it was something no native anglophone would say.

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that's true of native anglophones on either side of the Atlantic.

Because so many languages fail to make use of a present participle for verbs, She is probably to win the prize is something I can easily imagine a French or Spanish or Polish person saying. The rest of us, Americans and English alike, would naturally say She is probably going to win the prize.

But that has nothing to do with what we as anglophones might be willing to write.

Dictionary examples, alas, deal strictly with what we're willing to write.

David Crosbie said...

Dick, I largely disagree.

There are Northernisms in this thread that I don't think I'll ever say or write. I wouldn't currently say the likes of She'll likely win the Nobel Prize, but I might well drift into saying something like this in future.

And what I can say is usually much the same as I might write in informal styles. The big divide is between formal prose and everything else.

Even Eliseg is probably to be dated approximately to the mid-eighth century strikes me as typical of speech in a particular specialist context. I can image (in that strange other world) saying something like this, then writing it down. But then I can imagine seeing the awkwardness in the written sentence and editing accordingly.

As for She's probably to win the prize meaning 'It's been fixed', I could easily say that — if, of course that is what I meant and if was clear from the context.

John Cowan said...

In his tale "Farmer Giles of Ham" there are mentions of "twelve likely lads" who become the supporters of Giles in his new role as King of the Little Kingdom, and I have found the expression applied to the twelve apostles.

Helen said...

As a BrE speaker and English teacher, here is my tuppence-worth concerning "likely" when used as an adverb :

*She will probably win the prize
*She will most likely win the prize

BrE speakers need an intensifier (modifier) before "likely" when it is used as an adverb.That could be "most," as in the example, "very", "extremely," etc.

I have been noticing this creeping omission of the modifier over the past couple of years on the BBC, and in quality newspapers. It is the result of US influence. Please,please give us back our modifiers!

(The difference between "will" and "is to," mentioned above, is a valid but different point, to be treated in a separate thread.)

lynneguist said...

Helen, as the post indicates, Americans didn't take your modifiers. 'Likely' didn't need a modifier in British English the past--this is a recent invention.

The BBC has brought in more different voices in recent years, so as well as American influence we might look for British dialectal influence--since anything that used to be said in Britain might well be being said in some areas.

Albert Welch said...

26 Yr old North East American-

I strongly prefer probably to likely.

The only time I might use likely instead of probabl (e/y) is when used with seems, appears, looks or something similar.

The use of one instead of the other says nothing to me of how certain a person is of something happening.

The difference in my idiolect is that likely connotes a favorable,or if used in the negative, unfavorable, opinion of the result whereas probabl(e/y) is neutral in that regard.

Hence: "I'm likely to visit you soon.", but not "If I fail this test, I'm likely grounded"


Regarding the 5 definitions listed the 5th seems the least familiar to me, yet also the most intuitive based on the word root.

"I ,like this picnic spot"
"it is a likely spot"

In most cases where likely is used as an adjective I would be tolerant to probable used in its place, even if "probable to" sounds a bit stilted.

Unsure if this is a double post, if it is delete this spare one.

lynneguist said...

'Probably' is a much more common adverb in both countries.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

How about "liable to"? It's slightly different in emphasis, I think: "He's liable to get really angry if you do that..."

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Reboots

How about "liable to"?

Hm.

He's liable to visit this weekend.
She's liable to win the Nobel prize.


I think not.

I suggest that liable to refers to actions or events that recur.

This is extremely unlikely with visit this weekend. Unless, perhaps, it means 'the last weekend in April every year'.

Just possibly it could refer to Marie Curie who — to use a little exaggeration — made a habit of winning Nobel prizes.

PS I typed in Redboots and my spellchecker automatically changed it to Reboots. Not my mistake after all.

David Crosbie said...

I don't believe it!

I was scrupulously careful in changing Reboots back to Redboots. That spellchecker just won't accept defeat!

Grace said...

@Mrs Redboots & David Crosbie

I don't know that it's so much about recurrence as it is a generally favorable situation versus a specific probability.

If he jumps off that roof, he is liable to break his leg. (He could.)
If he jumps off that roof, he will probably break his leg. (I fully expect him to.)

The other big difference is that 'liable to' is nearly always used for negative things, whereas 'probably' and 'likely' can also be used for neutral or positive things.

David Crosbie said...

Grace

I personally would never say 'He is liable to break his leg.'

The OED lists meaning 3c

dial. and U.S.Likely.

All of the quotes look very strange to me.

Speaking of a wounded hen pheasant a farmer said, 'Tis very liable he's a-croped into one o' these here hovers.

Ould dog be put out at zix o'clock riglar, and 'tis liable he'll hurn straight to 'e.

He's liable to call our men out to-night, ain't he?

Norman Hunter's new record..is liable to stand unmolested for many years.

‘Boston is liable to be the ultimate place for holding the convention.’ ‘If the lawmakers get back before the frosts kill the vegetation, many of them are liable to think it a reproach to the nation that grass should be growing in the streets of the national capital.’

An American might say we are liable to be in Chicago next week without meaning that that would be a calamity.


The closest equivalent in my BrE speech is meaning 3b

Const. inf. Subject to the possibility of (doing or undergoing something undesirable).

Another reason for the difficulty of

He's liable to visit this weekend.
She's liable to win the Nobel prize.


• Unfortunately he often visits in the weekend before a general election, so he's liable to visit this weekend. We'll just have to put up with him, I'm afraid.

• Mme Curie tends to attract the jealousy and misogyny of some established scientists because, whether it's chemistry or physics, she's liable to win the Nobel prize.

Grace said...

I'm still not convinced it has to do with recurrence. In Mrs. Redboots' example, "He's liable to get really angry if you do that..." it seems to be about general likelihood, not habit necessarily. Many of the BrE examples I'm finding online are similar:

-If we want to imagine how ebooks are liable to develop then, we will have to look elsewhere.
-Danger. Cliff liable to fall.
-I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations.

Do these feel awkward? It seems only rarely is recurrence a central characteristic:

-During these cogitations he was liable to talk too much and to get the wrong idea.

David Crosbie said...

Grace

1. I can't speak for Mrs Redboots, but for me "He's liable to get really angry if you do that..." means that he usually gets really angry whenever you do that.

2. If we want to imagine how ebooks are liable to develop then, we will have to look elsewhere. is not the sort of British English that I speak. It could be a sign that AmE usage is spreading among young people or among IT people. Or it could be something said/written by an American and published in a British medium.

3. Danger. Cliff liable to fall for me quite unambiguously means that the cliff has fallen in the past and that there's an on-going danger of it falling again.

4. During these cogitations he was liable to talk too much and to get the wrong idea. I think we can all agree that this refers to recurrent loquacity leading to misunderstanding.

5. I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. Personally I would not say anything like this. I see the problems:

Likely would strike the wrong note. Edward Heath (the Prime Minister when Powell made his infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech) didn't want to sound like another prophet of doom. Indeed, he probably calculated that saying likely to damage race relations might be a self-fulfilling prophecy

Creates a potential for the foreseeable future is probably closer to what Heath meant, but it's far too wordy and pompous-sounding. Heath tried to come across as a straight talker. He was't born into the social elite. Some of his political enemies called him 'the grocer'. His favourite persona was as the skipper of his ocean-going yachts.

In any case, I don't think Heath meant that the speech would (in all probability) inflict instant damage on race relations. He mean that it would (probably) persist as a constant sore — as indeed it did.

British English, i would claim, has not lost the connection with liability — something undesirable or worse that places you under an obligation or constrains your abitity to achieve what you want. Even in example [5] there's still a sense of harm over a long period.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Speaking of a wounded hen pheasant a farmer said, 'Tis very liable he's a-croped into one o' these here hovers.

Ould dog be put out at zix o'clock riglar, and 'tis liable he'll hurn straight to 'e.


That sounds faintly Sussex to me, and quite normal! Perhaps that's why I use "liable" in some cases where you would not, being Sussex-bred!

Dick Hartzell said...

I had zero interest in entering the fray about liable or liability until it became clear that no one was going to bring it up as a legal term freighted with the notion of responsibility for adverse results.

There's not much doubt in my mind that either version of the word is often used in ordinary discourse to imply this legal responsibility. I'm not familiar with the pronouncement I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations., but is there any doubt the word liable here has been artfully chosen to hint that Mr Powell's speech could be held responsible for damaging race relations? To say so outright might have been politically indelicate; using liable instead makes the suggestion more indirect but just as palpable.

Here's a usage note about liable from Merriam-Webster.com:

Both liable and apt when followed by an infinitive are used nearly interchangeably with likely. Although conflicting advice has been given over the years, most current commentators accept apt when so used. They generally recommend limiting liable to situations having an undesirable outcome, and our evidence shows that in edited writing it is more often so used than not.

This note brings me back to If we want to imagine how ebooks are liable to develop then, we will have to look elsewhere. Without context it's impossible to know why the person who wrote this sentence used liable here instead of the more mundane and neutral probably. However, liable may have allowed the author to convey a touch of the sinister -- as if to suggest that how ebooks develop doesn't always remain in our purview. Which, if he or she were speaking from the vantage point of the old guard physical-book publishing industry, could be a backhanded way of criticizing the unpredictable behavior of the tech nerds who develop ebooks, ereaders, and their standards.

No way to know, of course.

Lastly, the use of liable to suggest undesirable outcomes can also be used for comic effect. Take the by now notorious locution She is liable to win the Nobel prize. It's easy to imagine this improbable observation coming humorously at the end of a longer one, such as "She's won the Booker, she's won the Costa, and if she's not careful she's liable to win the Nobel prize for literature."

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

The first quote is from a Somerset Word-book. The second is by RD Blackmore, who is classified as a west-of-England novelist.

Al the other quotes are American.

Of course, that's not to say that Sussex dialect can't be like Somerset in this.

David Crosbie said...

Dick

but is there any doubt the word liable here has been artfully chosen to hint that Mr Powell's speech could be held responsible for damaging race relations?

There was nothing artful in Heath's response. He could see that the speech had already started damaging race relations from the moment it was reported. Reaction was totally polarised between those who felt that Powell had validated their xenophobia and those who held him responsible for the immediate increased racial conflict and any further deterioration.

Even if Heath had wanted to sit on the fence it wasn't an option. He had to attack the speech — otherwise he couldn't justify having sacked the speechmaker.

Where I agree with you is that the negative connotations of liable were useful. Heath may well have bene thinking 'Powell will be to blame'.

To say so outright might have been politically indelicate

I'm not sure what you mean. Heath's only scruple would be not to seem to be endorsing Powell's prophecy.

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

This is the only passage that people sort-of remember from the speech, forever known as the 'Rivers of Blood" speech. The full text can be read here.

David Crosbie said...

Dick

Here's a usage note about liable from Merriam-Webster.com:

Both liable and apt when followed by an infinitive are used nearly interchangeably with likely.


Yes, that's the American English usage. It's quite alien to British usage, though, apart from a few dialectal uses and a fewAmE incursions. (Well, totally alien to the sort of British English that I speak.)

Lastly, the use of liable to suggest undesirable outcomes can also be used for comic effect.

Yes it can be so used in British English — but (at least in my speech) only with that sense of recurrence or persistence or constant danger. For example

That's the trouble with her and prizes. She's liable to win them.

Grace said...

Dick, thank you for bringing up the legal meaning of liable. I hadn't thought about it, but it seems quite likely that the negative outcome connotation comes from the legal usage.

David, clearly liable does have connotations of recurrence for you, but I'm just not sure yet whether that's also true of British English more broadly - other BrE speakers, please feel free to weigh in!

The ebook quote can be found here, and a little internet snooping shows that the author is British, though I suppose it's always possible he's been influenced by AmE.

David Crosbie said...

Grace, the legal use is the original use. The earliest quotation in the OED is

1542–3 His landes..and cattalles, shall be charged and lyable to the execucion of the sayde recouery.

The early non-legal use seems to be quite close:

3. a.
Exposed or subject to, or likely to suffer from (something prejudicial)...

1593 You should not be lyable to so much blame.

Earliest examples of liable to do something (in OED jargon 'Const. inf.')

Legal
1637 (modernized text) There is a little demur whether an executor is liable to answer damages.

Non-legal
1682 All would be as liable to die,
Subject to powerful Mortality.


The latter is under the heading that I quoted in an earlier post

3b. Const. inf. Subject to the possibility of (doing or undergoing something undesirable).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

David Crosbie wrote:
Yes, that's the American English usage. It's quite alien to British usage, though, apart from a few dialectal uses and a fewAmE incursions. (Well, totally alien to the sort of British English that I speak.)

Now I disagree with that - it's perfectly normal British usage, at least for me it is! I agree that it is American, too ("The things that you're li'ble/to read in the Bible/It ain't necessarily so!"), but I certainly use it and don't "take it strange" at all.

Andy said...

As a British lawyer in New York, I was appalled to note in American formal legal writing the use of adverbial "likely" with no modifier, so prevalent that in some memos I've read it almost appeared in every sentence (we lawyers like to qualify everything). After five years on this side of the Atlantic, I'm getting more used to it at work, though I have been disappointed to seeing it now creeping into the British press (even the Economist on a couple of occasions recently). But I steadfastly refuse to use it myself.

Roger said...

From "Hamlet" act 5 scene 2 —
FORTINBRAS:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on
To have proved most royally.

[For he would probably have been a great king if he had been able to prove himself]

I don't know whether this is an adjectival or adverbial usage but I think it is relevant?




David Crosbie said...

Roger

The relevant definition in the OED is sense 3a

3. intr.
a. With adverb or adverbial phrase as complement. To turn out in a specified way (as badly, otherwise, etc.). †to prove well: to turn out well; to thrive, succeed (obs.; in later use regional).

They supply a dozen quotations from 1350 onward. The most recent is

1991 Guardian (Nexis) 26 Jan. It should have been an easy business, but it is proving otherwise.