Q: I’ve read that the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been subjected to “progressively severe” punishment. I see that sort of usage a lot, and it seems to require a “more” (“progressively more severe”). Am I too picky?
A: Yes, you’re too picky. This doesn’t raise a red flag with us, perhaps because the use of the adverb “progressively” to mean “gradually” or “steadily” seems to have a built-in sense of “more”—that is, it suggests an increase unless a word like “less” is added to indicate otherwise.
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “progressively” in this sense as “by continuous advance; step by step, gradually; successively.”
Cambridge Dictionary online, one of the few standard dictionaries with an entry for “progressively,” defines it similarly and cites “increasingly” as a synonym. (Most dictionaries list “progressively” without comment in their entries for the adjective “progressive.”)
Another standard dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines the adverb as “steadily” or “in stages,” and has more than half a dozen examples in which “progressively” is used by itself to mean “increasingly” or “increasingly and steadily.” Here are a few of them:
“Over the past decade, straw burning has been progressively prohibited” … “The drought situation is getting progressively worse” … “An ever-increasing population is progressively intensifying the stresses on the environment” … “He has progressively moved his students towards a fully integrated digital design process.”
Lexico also has several examples with “more,” including these: “The approval process became progressively more difficult and politicized” … “It was progressively more difficult to find work in the theatre” … “I created a situation in which my job could only get progressively more difficult.” Although “more” in these examples adds emphasis, it could be dropped without significantly changing the sense.
The dictionary doesn’t have any examples in which “progressively” is used with “less” to mean “decreasingly,” but here’s one from a recent news article about the impact of testing driverless cars on public streets:
“Still, we can rest assured that the testing will become progressively less disruptive to us as the technology advances” (the Hill, May 14, 2019).
When the adverb “progressively” showed up in the early 17th century, it meant “in a progressive manner; in the way of progression or progress,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Syntagma Logicum, a 1620 treatise on logic, in which Thomas Granger writes of “the conforming, adapting, and disposing” of things “being inuented progressiuely.”
In the 20th century, the dictionary says, “progressively” developed its modern sense of “in a forward-looking, innovative, or avant-garde manner.” The first Oxford citation is from The Miracle of Right Thought (1910), a self-improvement book by the American writer Orison Swett Marden:
“The man who would succeed must think success, must think upward. He must think progressively, creatively, constructively, inventively, and, above all, optimistically.”
The adverb is derived from the adjective “progressive,” which was originally a term in astronomy for “moving forward in space,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first citation for the adjective is from a late 14th-century translation of a Latin treatise that purports to predict the weather by using astrology:
“A good shorte table for to knawe when all the planetis are stacionarye or retrograde or progressive.” (From Exafrenon Prognosticationum Temporis, by the English mathematician, astronomer, and abbott Richard of Wallingford. The Latin treatise was written in the early 1300s, and the OED dates the anonymous English translation at sometime before 1388.)
Over the years, the adjective “progressive” has taken on many other senses. Here are the current meanings, with examples, from Lexico:
- “Happening or developing gradually or in stages: a progressive decline in popularity.”
- “(Of a medical condition) increasing in severity: progressive liver failure.”
- “(Of taxation or a tax) increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases: steeply progressive income taxes.”
- “(Of a person or idea) favouring social reform: a relatively progressive Minister of Education.”
- “Favouring change or innovation: the most progressive art school in Britain.”
- “Relating to or denoting a style of rock music popular especially in the 1970s and characterized by classical influences, the use of keyboard instruments, and lengthy compositions: classic progressive albums … progressive bands like Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band.”
The adverb “progressively” has evolved too, though not as extensively. It is now primarily used in only the gradually developing and innovative senses of the adjective, as in these Lexico definitions and examples:
- “Steadily; in stages: successive governments progressively increased expenditure on welfare … symptoms become progressively worse over a period of years.”
- “In a forward-looking, innovative manner: we have a strong product but to retain this momentum we must think progressively … a circle of progressively minded reformers.”