The Grammarphobia Blog

Wanna argue?

Q: What does the word “arguably” mean? Does it mean “without a doubt” or “possibly”?

A: It usually means something in between those two definitions. In a sentence like “He’s arguably the best player in the National League,” we’re saying that one could make the case that he’s the best player in the league.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the adverb “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.”

If you find that confusing, Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, a guide for students of English as a second language, offers a clearer definition: “used to say that a statement is very possibly true even if it is not certainly true.”

Although some people are confused about whether “arguably” is negative or positive, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains that it “is used in a positive sense and that it is primarily a qualifier or hedge against too strong a statement.”

One reason for the confusion is that the adjective “arguable” can be either positive or negative. M-W Collegiate says it’s used for something that can be “open to argument” or “convincingly argued.”

In fact, the M-W usage guide also includes some examples of “arguable” used in what it considers a neutral sense. A 1982 book review in the New York Times, for example, refers to “an arguable issue that he does not pause to argue.”

The adverb “arguably” is relatively new. The earliest published reference for the word in the OED is from an 1890 issue of the Saturday Review: “His policy, if sometimes arguably mistaken, was almost always a … generous policy.”

Although the adjective “arguable” dates from the early 1600s, it doesn’t appear to have been widely used until the mid-1800s.

In an 1860 example, the English essayist Walter Bagehot writes that the Jacobites believed in “an hereditary family, which claimed the Crown, not on arguable considerations of policy, but on ascertainable claims of descent.”

As for the etymology of these words, both the adjective and adverb, as well as the verb “argue,” are ultimately derived from the Latin arguere (to make clear, prove, assert, accuse, blame).

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