A vanishingly unlikely peeve

A small piece of editorial dismissiveness in today’s Guardian:


(Photo thanks to Tom Hamilton)

‘[sic]’ is the classic device for sneering at the bad English of the person you’re quoting. It can be prissy and intrusive if overused, but in the right place it can be gently witty. But what’s it doing here?

I had to stop and think what might be wrong with ‘vanishingly unlikely’. My only guess is that it’s about the logic of the double negative: something that’s very unlikely would, logically, be vanishingly likely, right? And ‘vanishingly unlikely’ would, logically, mean near-certain, right?

Rubbish. It should hardly need saying, but if you want a perfectly logical language, English is not for you.

The British National Corpus holds 60 uses of ‘vanishingly’: 20 of these are followed by ‘small’, three ‘improbable’, one ‘scarce’ and one ‘low’. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 85: 48 ‘small’, eight ‘rare’, eight ‘low’, six ‘thin’, two ‘faint’, an ‘unlikely’, a ‘sparse’ and a couple of others. All these uses are marked by negativity.

And yet, there is a logic to this, too, one that the Guardian’s sub-editor seems to have missed: ‘vanishingly X’ means ‘so X as to be near vanishing’.

Even the Guardian’s own usage bears this out. Since the start of 2012, ‘vanishingly’ has appeared 52 times (not counting the above): 29 ‘small’, 11 ‘rare’, four ‘unlikely’ and a few others in the same vein. Maybe they’ve got a new sub.

What about the alternative, though? What about ‘vanishingly likely’? In books, it’s vanishingly rare – or vanishingly common, if you prefer:


You can find people on the internet who use it, but they’re really in the minority.

I like puzzling over language peeves that I’ve never seen before, but I hope I never see this one again.


Update: Warsaw Will, who hadn’t previously come across ‘vanishingly’, has done more research on its use and history. He likens the meaning of ‘vanishingly unlikely’ to that of ‘increasingly unlikely’ – terms whose adverbs are apparently in opposition.

So we come to roughly the same view of what the Guardian’s ‘[sic]’ must have meant.

But, from my own experience, I don’t think ‘vanishingly’ necessarily implies change (as ‘increasingly’ does). Take its six other most recent appearances in the Guardian (while we’re here):

(1) His voice is vanishingly quiet as well as monotonal, and he is slightly deaf, which makes conversation something of a challenge.

(2) Recreational football in China is vanishingly rare – government authorities shunt promising young players through specialised sports schools where they are trained according to Stalinist athletic theory.

(3) The vanishingly small speck whose spin has been confirmed as being Higgs-like ought to be regarded with awe

(4) Anyone concerned about the care gap and how it is going to be filled, short of the vanishingly unlikely prospect of recruiting an extra million social care workers over the next decade, should be heartened by the development.

(5) But the number of commercial companies that are more than a century old is vanishingly small.

(6) This device allows the detection of vanishingly tiny amounts of pollutants.

(1) and (2) seem to be ongoing situations, (3) and (6) definitely are, while (4) and (5) probably suggest decline.

My best judgement is that ‘vanishingly’ is normally used to mean something like ‘extremely’, but only in implying a near-zero level of probability, frequency, size or whatever. Maybe it’s a step up from ‘infinitesimally’.

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  • Warsaw Will  On March 24, 2013 at 1:58 am

    It might possibly be because not all British dictionaries list ‘vanishingly’. It was certainly new (and a bit strange) to me (BrE). Oxford, Collins and Longman list it, but Cambridge, Chambers and Macmillan don’t. I imagine Chambers might be a favourite at the Guardian; I’m pretty sure it used to be the one they recommended for their crossword.

    Also, the collocation with ‘increasingly unlikely’ seems to be far more common than the pretty rare ‘vanishingly unlikely’ (by a factor of over 20, according to Ngram). The latter is also relatively new, and only really seems to have taken off since 2000, as your Ngram graph shows. If (like me) you’re not familiar with ‘vanishingly’ in this context, it can rather look like the opposite of ‘increasingly’. Perhaps that’s what the sub was thinking.

    On the other hand, a site search of the Guardian brings up 25 instances of “vanishingly unlikely”. Some of these are in the comments, but quite a few are by Guardian regulars, including Polly Toynbee and Cory Doctorow, one from Guardian public services editor David Brindle, and there’s one from a Tory MP contributor, Sarah Wollaston.

    But what surprised me most, is that ‘vanishingly unlikely’ is more than twice as common in British books as in American ones, according to Ngram, its use tripling between 2001 and 2008. And I had thought it must be an Americanism. How wrong I was!


  • Tom Freeman  On March 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks Will. Your post was really interesting, and I’ve updated mine in response. I have to confess it hadn’t occurred to me that the usage might be rare enough to have passed people by. I’d assumed that the sub or whoever was acting out of a ‘not this illiterate nonsense again!’ mindset rather than a ‘what on Earth is this?’ one. I guess we’ll never know.

  • Warsaw Will  On March 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks for the plug. Having had another look at the dictionary definitions, I have to admit that the idea of a progressive reduction appears to have been entirely my own interpretation; that’s what it seemed to imply to me. But the dictionaries do not suggest this and I entirely go along with your best judgement. I’d better amend my post too.

  • John Cowan  On March 25, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    It’s also not uncommon for words that mean “almost nothing”, like “jack(sh*t)” to move over to mean “nothing”, a small change in semantics with a big effect on polarity. Thus, “He knew jack” and “He didn’t know jack” mean the same thing: he knew very little or nothing.

  • missjane  On March 26, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Within a few days of reading this, I came across an example of ‘vanishingly’ (in very close proximity to unlikely) in an Iain M. Banks novel:

    “You think its disappearance is unlikely?” Utli said, now expressing mock seriousness.
    “Vanishingly,” Shoum said, but the joke didn’t translate.


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