The Grammarphobia Blog

Probability theory

Q: I have been busy writing a requiem for an old, well-used word: “probably.” Its three syllables have been reduced to two, “prolly” or “probly,” by practically everyone, including my grandchildren, most of whom have had obscene amounts of money spent on them at top-notch universities. RIP, “probably.”

A: You’re not the first person to worry about the fate of “probably.” Just stick “prolly” and “probly” in your search engine—and stand back!

However, the demise of “probably” is much exaggerated, so don’t count it out just yet.

When they write, most people give “probably” its full complement of syllables and letters. In speech, though, it sometimes gets shortchanged, and comes out sounding like “probly” or “prolly.”

But in all probability, its full spelling will remain the standard. A quick Google search of the various spellings shows “probably” is far and away the winner and still champion.

As you might suspect, the adverb “probably” was formed from the adjective “probable.” It was first recorded in writing in the mid-1400s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1600, “probably” was first used as a sentence adverb—that is, one modifying an entire statement rather than an individual verb—and that’s the way it’s normally used today.

The OED does have an entry for “prolly,” which it says represents “a colloquial pronunciation” of the adverb “probably.” By “colloquial,” the OED means more likely to be encountered in common speech than in formal English.

Of course, writers have used “prolly” now and then to quote people, fictional or real, who pronounce the word that way.

The OED’s first citation for “prolly” is from H. G. Wells’s novel Christina Alberta’s Father (1925): “Prolly thiswe sitting on my beawawd.” And what that means we cannot tell you.

Now for a more intelligible citation, with “prolly” representing a dialectal pronunciation.

This is from a mystery by the British crime novelist Kenneth Giles, Death Cracks a Bottle (1969): “I don’t know wot ’appen to it. The mice prolly.”

Our advice: don’t worry  about “probably.” It’s more than probably here to stay.

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