The Grammarphobia Blog

Urban affairs

Q: Although my spell-checker rejects the adjective “urbanistic,” it’s a standard term in the field of urbanism. My question concerns the adverb: Is it “urbanisticly” or “urbanistically”? (Uh-oh, spell-check is having palpitations!)

A: Your spell-checker is so yesterday. It’s time to update its dictionary.

The adjective “urbanistic” and the adverb “urbanistically” appear in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) – in entries for the noun “urbanist.”

As you might imagine, all three words also appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “urbanist” first showed up in print 80 years ago, according to the OED, which defines it as “a specialist in or advocate of town-planning.”

It was first recorded in the Times Literary Supplement in 1930: “To do so would be to entrust the fate of a city to the technical urbanist.”

Below its entry for “urbanist,” the OED adds this note: “Hence urbanistic a., urbanistically adv.” It provides three citations, all from the British press:

1959, from The Listener, the former magazine of the BBC: “Though he has derived so much from the study of the city, his own urbanistic achievements are scarcely to be considered to rank alongside his architectural ones.” (The reference is to Le Corbusier.)

1975, from the Times Literary Supplement: “Urbanistically, there is no Middle America.”

1983, from The Listener: “An international competition was held for an urbanistic plan for the Sassi.”

Why isn’t the adverbial ending a simple “ly”? Because, as the OED explains, it’s unusual in English to add “ly” to an adjective ending in “ic” (like urbanistic”) in order to form an adverb.

In cases like these, the ending is “nearly always
-ically.” (A couple of exceptions that immediately come to mind are “publicly” and “franticly,” which is an acceptable variant of “frantically.”)

The “ically” adverbial ending is a compound suffix consisting of an adjectival suffix, “ical,” and an adverbial suffix, “ly.” And “ically” is used to form adverbs from adjectives ending in both “ical,” and “ic.”

The OED uses “historic/historical/historically” and “poetic/poetical/poetically” as examples.

The adverb almost always ends in “ically,” the OED says, “even when only the adj. [ending] in -ic is in current use, as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

Hence we would write “urbanistically” even if there’s no word “urbanistical” in common use.

This would also seem to indicate that any new adverb formed from an adjective ending in “ic” should end in “ically.”

As we’ve already suggested, if you expect to be using “urbanistic” and “urbanistically,” it’s time to add them to your word processor’s dictionary. 

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.