The Grammarphobia Blog

Special education

Q: I’m reading The Letters of Virginia Woolf and find it fascinating, but this sentence made me raise an eyebrow: “The Years continued to boom, specially in America.” What do you make of this use of “specially”? It was written by an editor, not VW.

A: We’ll start with the adjectives: “special” entered English in the 1200s and “especial” in the late 1300s.

Both are derived from the Latin specialus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meaning “belonging to or concerned with a particular species, special as opposed to general.”

That explains how “special” and “species” are related! In our own time, “special” is much more common and “especial” is a distant second.

The corresponding adverbs, “specially” (dating to the late 1200s) and “especially” (around 1400), are not quite interchangeable.

In modern usage, “especially” is the more common word and means something like “particularly.” For example: “He is especially fond of pizza.” Or, “He likes many foods, especially pizza.” Or, “He craves pizza, especially since he went off his diet.”

You wouldn’t use “specially” in any of those sentences, but you might say “He has his pizzas specially made.” (You can see what’s on my mind!)

Back to your question. In the sentence “The Years continued to boom, specially in America,” the word “specially” is not wrong, just an uncommon usage there. Most people would have written “especially.”

Usually you see “specially” before a verb, as in “specially designed,” “specially constructed,” “specially adapted” and so on. After the verb, you’re more likely to see “especially,” as in “This was designed especially for me.”

I hope you find this especially enlightening.

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