The Grammarphobia Blog

How arguable is “arguably”?

Q: Why don’t you add “arguably” to the list of verbally abused words in your book Woe Is I? I’ve read numerous articles and books in which “arguably” is mistakenly used to mean “undoubtedly.”

A: Thanks for the tip. I’ve discussed the problem during my monthly radio appearances on WNYC, but I’ll make a note to consider adding it to the next edition of Woe Is I.

Some people are confused about whether “arguably” is negative or positive. Does it mean you can make a case for something or against it?

One reason for the confusion is that the adjective “arguable” can be either positive or negative. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) says it’s used for something that can be “open to argument” or “convincingly argued.”

But the adverb “arguably,” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “is used in a positive sense” and “is primarily a qualifier or hedge against too strong a statement.”

M-W Collegiate says “arguably” describes something that “may be argued or shown by argument.” It gives these two examples: “an arguably effective strategy” and “arguably the greatest writer of his era.”

So when you say somebody is “arguably” the best slugger in baseball, the word “arguably” is intended to convey something stronger than “possibly” but not quite as strong as “undoubtedly.” That is, you could argue convincingly that he’s the best.