“Publicly” and “publically”

From time to time I see “publically” in copy. I’ve even caught myself typing it once or twice. It’s widely regarded as a mistake (although some dictionaries now list it as a variant spelling).

But the approved spelling, “publicly”, is a unique oddity. It’s the only adverb ending in “–icly” formed from an adjective that ends in “–ic”. Compare:

  • hectic – hectically
  • tragic – tragically
  • archaic – archaically
  • cryptic – cryptically
  • idiotic – idiotically

And so on. But “public” alone bucks the trend to become “publicly”.

At least, it does most of the time. In the GloWbE corpus (a record of language used on web pages archived in 2012), “publically” is about 6% as common as “publicly”. In the Google Books records, it’s below 1%.

People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid. They’re promoting regularity in the language. They’re like children who say “runned” and “buyed” and “bringed” because they’ve worked out the rule for forming past-tense verbs but haven’t realised that there are exceptions.

We get taught about these exceptions, though: there are over 100 irregular verbs, most well-known. But there’s only one “publicly”, so people are less aware of it as an issue and it appears in adult usage far more than over-regularised verbs.

I don’t know why “publicly” is unique, but Pam Peters notes that several adjectives have both “–ic” and “–ical” forms. Some of these pairs have pretty much the same meaning:

  • botanic/botanical
  • geometric/geometrical
  • monarchic/monarchical
  • poetic/poetical
  • rhythmic/rhythmical

Some are subtly different in meaning:

  • comic/comical
  • electric/electrical
  • lyric/lyrical

Others are more significantly different:

  • economic/economical
  • historic/historical
  • politic/political

Peters connects this to the adverb situation:

The parity of adjectives in -ic and -ical helps to explain why the adverbs for both types end in -ically. So, for example, the adverbs for organic and tragic are organically and tragically. Even though the -ical forms of the adjectives have long since disappeared, their ghosts appear in the adverbs. The effect is there even for adjectives which never had a counterpart ending in -ical. So barbaric, basic, civic, drastic and others become barbarically, basically etc., and it’s as if -ally is the adverbial ending for them. This has become the general rule for all adjectives ending in -ic except public, whose adverb is still normally publicly.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us why the adverb forms settled as “–ically” rather than “–icly”.

So I looked at the OED historical citations for the 16 bullet-pointed examples above, and found that for 12 of them, the “–ical” form of the adjective pre-dated the “–ic”. This kind of suggests that, if these pairs were interchangeable at the time (1400s–1600s in most of these cases), the “–ical” forms may have been better established and so had a dominant position when it came to forming adverbs. Hence the “–ically” convention.


But this doesn’t tell us why “publicly” now stands alone. It did appear earlier than most of the other adverbs above; the OED’s first “public” is in 1394 and “publicly” 1534. So maybe it had managed to dig in by the time the “–ically” convention was blossoming? The OED has a couple of “publical”s (one in 1450, one in 1898) but they’re clearly rogue; “public” has always been the only accepted form of the adjective, and this fact may have pushed people towards “publicly”. (“Publically” doesn’t appear until 1797.)

A scrap of support for this theory comes from the fact that “publicly” hasn’t always stood alone. The now-dead “franticly”, which Peters mentions, used to be common. The OED’s first “frantic” was in 1390, “franticly” in 1549 and “frantically” in 1749; it has no record of “frantical”. The situation is very like that of “public” and its derivatives, except that “publicly” has managed to survive regularisation.

So far, at least.

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  • artigomariktizomifar  On December 9, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    The adjective ‘public’ (masculine) ‘publique’ (feminine) is odd in French as well. I guess one could write ‘chicly dressed’ at a pinch, but no one would write ‘chically dressed’.

    • Tom Freeman  On December 9, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      “Chicly”… cunning! I’m going to wave my hands and mumble something about loanwords not counting.

      • artigomariktizomifar  On December 9, 2014 at 2:51 pm

        The ‘ic’ of ‘chic’ is not a morpheme whereas the ‘ic’ of ‘public’ arguably is. That’s the cheat.

  • catteau  On December 9, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I’ve been known to use “publically” by extension from all the other adverbs you mention. For a while I didn’t know it was “incorrect.”

    On the other hand, I would never turn the past participle of “to spell” into a grain! “People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid.”


    • Tom Freeman  On December 9, 2014 at 2:00 pm

      Nice try, but I’m a fan of Gray’s Elegy (1751): “Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d Muse, The place of fame and elegy supply.” 😉

    • artigomariktizomifar  On December 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      That old, half-baked ‘spelt is a type of grain’ argument is the best argument a child can give you for saying ‘feeled’.

    • wordiewoman  On December 9, 2014 at 2:43 pm

      ‘Spelt’ is normal British English (BrE) usage, like ‘dreamt’, ‘learnt’ and ‘earnt’. (The fact that it’s a homonym and also means a grain variety is irrelevant.) In other words, these verbs (spell, dream, learn and earn) are (in principle) irregular in BrE, although not in AmE.

      Our BrE dialect is, of course, changing rapidly and basically, for better or worse (?!), that means Americanisation. I haven’t looked into it but it wouldn’t surprise me if younger Brits used ‘dreamed’, ‘learned’ etc more often and no doubt these forms will be increasingly common in the future. Meanwhile, however, most of us oldies will probably persist in our ingrained BrE ways, however odd they may seem to those brought in with other linguistic traditions!

      A tip from a UK-based, British EFL/ESL teacher and translator of long standing.

      • wordiewoman  On December 9, 2014 at 2:44 pm

        (oops! Correction: brought UP with… or brought up IN…, I meant)

      • artigomariktizomifar  On December 9, 2014 at 2:55 pm

        Exactly, wordiewoman. ‘Smelt is a fish’, ‘felt is a fabric’. The argument is childish.

  • Hakim  On December 9, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    The OED has “publically” as a variant spelling, which means it’s Good Enough for at least informal use, and I’ll continue to use it at least in personal email etc.. On the other hand, on a public-facing website*, we’ve “corrected” to “publicly” largely to avoid having to discuss it with pedants.

    * or publicly, if you like.

  • Jeremy Butterfield  On December 9, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Very interesting article, indeed. I was fascinated to see that there is a(n) historical precedent for publicly in franticly, and then there’s…chicly! It might be worth pointing out that there are regional differences in how the two adjective forms – when there’s no difference in meaning – are used. For instance, geographical is much more frequent in BrE than in AmE.

  • Michael Vnuk  On December 10, 2014 at 4:50 am

    The following -ICLY words are allowed in Scrabble, but I don’t have all the source dictionaries at hand (nor the time) to check how exactly the words are used, eg some of them may be obsolete, as you mention for ‘franticly’.
    chicly (OK)
    cholericly (OK)
    franticly (OK)
    impoliticly (OK)
    politicly (OK)
    publicly (OK)
    The ones marked as ‘(OK)’ did not receive a red wiggly underline when I typed them.

  • Bookgirl  On December 11, 2014 at 1:08 am

    oh the error of thy ways. Can you now fix the spell check on my computer to English rather than American English. Lol

  • ramesh krishnamurthy  On December 11, 2014 at 10:41 am

    mmm… #1 “It’s widely regarded as a mistake” – by whom? on what authority? …”the approved spelling”… by whom? on what authority? …#2 ““publicly”, is a unique oddity. It’s the only adverb ending in “–icly” formed from an adjective that ends in “–ic”.” … a) logic is only one of the many bases for human behaviour. no set of human-generated conventions (political, legal, economic, linguistic) are entirely logical. so why invoke *only* logic to explain language, why not emotions, for example? b) why should we assume that within this logic, ‘public’ (in the form ‘publicly’) is the adjective rather than the noun? where is the proof? #3 “People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid. They’re promoting regularity in the language. They’re like children who say “runned” and “buyed” and “bringed” because they’ve worked out the rule for forming past-tense verbs but haven’t realised that there are exceptions.” a) it is neither a case of ‘mistake’ (there is NO right and wrong in language *usage* – which can only be descriptive, hence only ‘frequent’ or ‘rare’ – as you yourself concede, by looking at a corpus, in this case GloWbE)… #4 the forms (eg publicly, publically) are clearly visible… their meanings are not… very few people, whether laypeople or professional/academic linguists) will be able to agree on the exact meaning of any word in any context… #5 John Sinclair suggested that ‘every difference in form is associated with a difference in meaning’… #6 words do not have meanings, they have ‘meaning potential/potential meanings’ (Patrick Hanks) #7 “meaning arises from context” (Malinowski, Firth, Halliday, Sinclair, etc) and the most proximate context is co-text, manifested via the process of collocation (words that tend to co-occur in frequent *usage*)… #8 i circulated and later published research in 1992 distinguishing ‘electric’ and ‘electrical’ (‘electric’ collocates with devices powered by electricity, eg ‘toothbrush’; ‘electrical’ collocates with systems or generic terms like ‘appliance, apparatus, device’; an electric fire is an electrical device; an electrical fire is usually a conflagration caused by an electrical fault) #9 a closer examination of ‘botanic/botanical, geometric/geometrical, monarchic/monarchical, poetic/poetical, rhythmic/rhythmical’ will show that their differences in meaning/collocation have just not been investigated yet, or are more subtle than previously thought? #10 whenever the form ‘publicly’ came into usage, i doubt that people were concerned with its derivation, but only with its *usefulness*… just as ‘sleaze’ came into usage in the late 1970s / early 1980s because it was *needed*, although ‘sleazy’ had been used in English for several centuries earlier.

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