The Grammarphobia Blog

Publicly vs. publically

Q: In a recent post, you used the word “publically” (a typo, I hope). It got me wondering why “publicly” is the only adverb formed from an adjective ending in “-ic” that doesn’t use “-ally” (at least it’s the only one I can think of). Is there a historical reason?

A: Well, some standard dictionaries do include “publically” as a variant spelling, but it’s described as less popular than “publicly.” In fact, “publicly” outnumbers “publically” by more than 100 to 1 in Google searches.

More to the point, we prefer “publicly” to “publically,” and we’ve changed that post. We should have known better, since our blog once touched on this subject.

As we wrote in 2010, the adverb form of an adjective ending in “-ic” almost always ends in “-ically.” The notable exception is “publicly.”

As we’ve said, some dictionaries recognize “publically” as a variant, but its acceptability depends on which dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “publically” a “nonstandard variant of publicly.”

But the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognizes “publicly, also publically.” This use of “also” means that M-W considers the variant standard English though it “occurs appreciably less often.”

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Publically is an occasionally used variant spelling of publicly. It is either based on the obsolete publical or, more likely, simply on analogy with many other –ically adverbs.”

The mention of “publical” is significant, because obviously any adjective ending in “-ical” will have the “-ically” ending when it becomes an adverb.

And as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “it can frequently be unclear” how an “-ically” adverb was formed.

Was “-ly” added to an adjective ending in “-ical,” like the rare “publical”? Or was “-ally” added to an adjective ending in “-ic,” like “public”?

The question is relevant because at one time many adjectives had both “-ical” and “-ic” forms, as with “rustical/rustic,” “romantical/romantic,” “athletical/athletic,” “optimistical/optimistic,” “scenical/scenic.”

Sometimes there were briefly two corresponding adverbs, as with “rustically/rusticly,” “romantically/romanticly,” “phlegmatically/phlegmaticly.” But generally the “-ically” adverbs were more common.

Today, many of the “-ical” adjective forms have died out, but despite that, the surviving adverb forms “almost always” end in “-ically,” the OED says.

This is true even when only the adjective ending in “-ic” is currently used, Oxford adds, “as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

And where both adjectives (“-ical” and “-ic”) exist today, the corresponding adverb ends in “-ically,” as with “comically” (for “comical” and “comic”), “poetically” (for “poetical/poetic”), and “historically” (for “historical/historic”).

The elephant in the room is “publicly.” And that’s the form we generally use on the Grammarphobia Blog—except when we forget.

It’s always been the predominant form, and it’s much older. It was first recorded, according to the OED, in 1534, more than 250 years before “publically” showed up in writing in the late 18th century.

The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide concludes its entry on “publically” with this advice: “You can use it if you like, but we do not really recommend it, because it will look unfamiliar to many who encounter it.”

Note: Some dictionaries include “franticly” as an acceptable variant, but the usual adverb is “frantically.”

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