The Grammarphobia Blog

Do the suits want to dominate us?

Q: Business people are obsessed with the word “predominantly,” even when speaking of things that can’t be measured. E.g., “Our marketing focuses predominantly on Europe.” Wouldn’t “mainly” be more correct, and more elegant in its brevity? Is this another example of the suits wanting to assert their “dominance”?

A: We suspect that these business people, like stuffed shirts in government, academia, and elsewhere, feel that puffed-up words make them seem more important.

Given a choice, they’ll pick a word derived from Latin (like “predominantly”) over one with a good old Anglo-Saxon lineage (like “mainly”). And the more syllables the better.

However, we don’t think dominance—lexical, mercantile, or otherwise—comes into play here.

Interestingly, both “mainly” and “predominantly” entered English with a lot of force and, one might say, domination.

The word “mainly” is derived from the noun “main,” which meant “physical strength, force, or power” when it first appeared in print in the 700s in Beowulf, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the adverb “mainly” showed up around 1300, it meant “mightily, vigorously, violently,” though the OED says that sense of the word is now obsolete.

In the mid-1400s, “mainly” came to mean “greatly, considerably, very much, a great deal.”

And in the mid-1600s, it took on its main modern sense: “for the most part; in the main; as the chief thing, chiefly, principally.”

We got the adverb “predominantly” from Medieval Latin via French.

It first showed up in the early 1600s, according to the OED, and meant “in a predominant manner; to a predominant degree.”

Not very helpful. What does “predominant” mean here?

When “predominant” entered English in the late 1500s, it meant “having ascendancy, supremacy, or prevailing influence over others.” In other words, dominant.

But by the time “predominantly” showed up, “predominant” also referred to “the main, most abundant, or strongest element.”

So one of the earliest senses of “predominantly” was indeed “mainly.”

To make a long story short, either “mainly” or “predominantly” can be used in the sentence you mention. And it doesn’t matter whether the adverb refers to something that can be measured or not.

We agree with you, though, that “mainly” is more elegant in its brevity. It sounds less pompous too.

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