Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

A Likely Story

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she takes a look at the predilection of headline-writers for the word likely.

The other day, I'd finished my commuting book on the way in to work, so I picked up an afternoon tabloid to read on the way home. After reading a few pages, I was struck by something, then quickly flipped through to see whether the phenomenon I'd noticed was repeated throughout the paper. It was.

I'm talking about the use of the word likely in headlines. Seems it's a frequent go-to word for headline writers, and not just the ones who work for the paper I was reading. I looked up likely in Google News when I got home, and a significant majority of the hits that were returned were from headlines.

Likely is one of a relatively small group of adjectives that end in -ly (unseemly, goodly, and portly are some others). Perhaps for this reason, a myth has been perpetuated that it can never be used adverbially. Before we get further in this discussion, let's make sure you can spot the difference. In which of the following headlines is likely being used adverbially? (Some of the headlines are "down-style," which is common for Web sources.)

1. Hazardous Mayon volcano eruption likely
2. Nick Johnson's one-year deal with New York Yankees likely spells end for Johnny Damon with Bombers
3. Will Yankees Consider Matt Holliday with Johnny Damon's Likely Departure?
4. Hanson says he'll likely sign NDSU smoking ban
5. Guinea massacre likely a 'crime against humanity': HRW
6. No Change Likely In How NJ Fills Senate Vacancies
7. Full report of shooting likely still weeks away
8. US Attorney: Bruno likely to do prison time
9. Gibbs isn't likely to be in the mix
10. Winter storm likely tonight

Seven of these headlines use an acceptable shortened form of "is likely to" or "is likely." If you can expand a use of likely to the full phrase and it will still work in the sentence, then likely is acting as an adjective: "A winter storm is likely tonight." "Guinea massacre is likely to be a 'crime against humanity.'"

Headline number 9 uses the full form in the negative, "isn't likely to be." (I wonder why the writer didn't choose unlikely there.) Likely can be used with linking verbs besides to be, as in seems likely, appears likely, and so on.

One of the headlines, number 3, shows how the adjective can be used in premodifying position — that is, before a noun (departure) instead of after a linking verb. This structure is less common, but it is exemplified in the idiomatic phrase that is the title of this article.

So that leaves headlines 2 and 4. In neither case is likely short for "is likely (to)." Both times, it is modifying a verb: in "likely spells," it modifies the main verb in the present tense; in "will likely sign," it modifies the main verb as part of the simple future structure.

In both cases, the use of likely as an adverb is helpful. Headline 2 is already quite long and does not need the wordy "is likely to spell" when "likely spells" is perfectly clear. "Hanson likely to sign NDSU smoking ban" would lose the attribution; in the existing headline, it is clear that the assertion of likelihood came from Hanson himself, so it carries more weight. Here again, "Hanson says he's likely to sign NDSU smoking ban" is unnecessarily wordy.

In running text rather than headlines, I think the adjectival forms read better. But I encourage you not to correct every adverbial use of likely on principle. The principle isn't actually as strict as that.

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.


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Friday January 15th 2010, 7:43 AM
Comment by: paul D. (n myrtle beach, SC)
In examining your text I was "likely" to succeed because I was analyzing "likely" as modifying either a noun or a verb, to conclude that "likely" w'd been an adverb or an adjective.
Thanks for this great writing.
Friday January 15th 2010, 9:00 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Thanks for the interesting and informative article!

Is it just me? When I read "Hanson likely to sign NDSU smoking ban," it was not at all clear that the assertion came from Hanson himself. If anything, it suggested speculation on someone else's part that Hanson will sign.
Monday January 18th 2010, 7:36 PM
Comment by: Lya C.
Interesting article, but it did not cover a sore point I have had about the use of the word "likely" in journalism. The word "likely" has a quality that is more positive than negative, more yes than no. Something that is "likely to happen" is less "unlikely to happen" and thus we have a word that possibly inserts the journalist's personal view into what should be a news article.

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