English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

"Supposably" sounds awful (to my ear) and I'm surprised at how often I hear it said. How often would it have to be used within the general population for it to become an acceptable alternative pronunciation to the correct word "supposedly"?

share|improve this question
I'm not sure if it's possible to determine when a particular pronunciation of a word is "acceptable". In fact, I'm kind of thinking this question is too subjective. – Chris Dwyer Nov 18 '10 at 15:58
@Chris Dwyer: +1. Is "nucular" considered an acceptable pronunciation of "nuclear"? I've been hearing that for years. And I would say that it's not acceptable. – Andy Nov 18 '10 at 16:09
Though interesting, this question can't begin to be answered without at least defining "acceptable". Are we talking dictionaries (which ones)? Are we talking enough people (how many, which regions)? Are we talking about understandability (say, 90% have to understand you perfectly, 99%...)? Most importantly, even if we define "acceptable" for this question, there is probably no way to predict or measure most (any?) of these parameters. – Kosmonaut Nov 18 '10 at 17:07
@Andy My point is that it is impossible to objectively determine if a particular pronunciation is acceptable. Proof of this is your usage of "I would say that...". – Chris Dwyer Nov 18 '10 at 18:08
@Andy: Merriam-Webster marks "nucular" with an ÷, i.e. as a "variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable. This symbol is used sparingly and primarily for variants that have been objected to over a period of time in print by commentators on usage, in schools by teachers, or in correspondence that has come to the Merriam-Webster editorial department. In most cases the objection is based on orthographic or etymological arguments." Do note how they don't just say "unacceptable", but rather "considered by some to be unacceptable". – RegDwigнt Nov 19 '10 at 12:41
up vote 2 down vote accepted

This phenomenon happens all the time. What we call "language" is nothing more than the words that people are actually using. When enough people use a word or pronunciation or spelling for a long enough time, it becomes part of the language. How long this takes is hugely variable, and depends largely on how useful people find the new construction to be. Thus, new tech jargon is assimilated very quickly. Other things (like "gaol" becoming "jail") take hundreds of years.

"Supposably" is very far from the point of becoming standard English. The reason that "supposable" sounds so wrong is that you expect the "-able" adjectival ending to be used with transitive verbs--the object of the transitive verb becomes the thing described by the "-able" adjective. Typical usage of "suppose" isn't really transitive, so "supposable" sounds wrong. The first step toward "supposable" becoming accepted is for transitive usage of "suppose" to become common.

share|improve this answer
I agree with you on the first point, but not the second. "To suppose" is always transitive: you suppose an idea. The fact that it's most often used with a subordinate clause doesn't detract from that. I maintain "supposably" sounds wrong because it's a phonetic derivative of "supposedly" in the same way "nucular" derives from "nuclear": a complex or uncommon consonant cluster being collapsed into a more familiar, easily pronounced one. "Supposable" is just a back-formation, but that doesn't make it any less valid, since it does have a logical meaning distinct from "supposed". – Jon Purdy Nov 22 '10 at 4:46
the first part of this answer is the only one so far that tries to address the question of how long it might take, so I'm picking this as the answer over @Jon's. Jon's answer is great, but the people saying supposably really don't mean that, they mean supposedly. – ukayer Feb 25 '11 at 4:16
Gaol didn't become jail. They entered the language as separate, though related, words from different sources. – Jon Hanna Feb 15 '13 at 15:41

Supposably "supposably" means someone might suppose;
supposedly "supposedly" means someone really does.

share|improve this answer
How does this answer the question? – Chris Dwyer Nov 18 '10 at 15:56
@Chris Dwyer: "One might suppose that the two words have distinct meanings: that the first refers to hypothetical supposition; the second, to actual supposition." The point is that since it's supposable that "supposably" is a word in its own right, then it doesn't matter that it only exists as an approximation of a less common sequence of phonemes, like [klj] becoming [kjul] in nuclear for those who pronounce it "nucular". Enough people already say it, and we have to find a way to deal with it. – Jon Purdy Nov 19 '10 at 4:24
@Jon Purdy: do you have examples to illustrate the difference? – Peter Mortensen Nov 19 '10 at 18:13
@Peter Mortensen: Yes. The question and my comment on it. If something is supposable, then to my mind that means it could be supposed, say, for the sake of discussion, without implying that there is anyone out there who actually supposes it. If something is not supposable, then presumably it's not only inconceivable, but also probably unfathomable. The difference is subtle, but I think it'll grow over time as prescriptivists read too much into the terms. I'm just doing it for fun. – Jon Purdy Nov 20 '10 at 22:01
@Peter Mortensen: If I suppose that pigs have wings, then supposedly it is true: I did the supposition, so that pigs have wings is, in fact, supposed. If I say that supposably pigs have wings, then it's supposable but not actually supposed; I didn't say "I suppose pigs have wings", and I'm not implying that anyone else has said that. The first is saying "for the purpose of discussion, I assume pigs have wings", whereas the second says "it's possible to assume that pigs have wings", while saying nothing about whether anyone actually says so, even for the purpose of argument. – Jon Purdy Nov 22 '10 at 4:36

Supposably has been a word used in the written record since 1739 according to the OED. Supposedly since 1597. Both have almost the same meaning, 'to presume something is true,' however supposedly means 'to presume truth without evidence'.

Both are considered correct Standard English. Supposably has died out of use recently except in the US, which is why you may think it is an alternative pronunciation.

share|improve this answer

I suppose (heh heh) that if everyone who heard it thought that the "supposably" distortion of "supposedly" was better, then, like all successful memes, it would become adopted into common usage and become the dominant pronunciation. However, it would have a long battle to get there.

Next, we'll have syllabub replacing syllable.

share|improve this answer

I used to know someone who said "assumably" instead of "presumably" and even that sounded wrong to my ear. But just like "supposably" I can't see any reason for it to be considered wrong, it's just not particularly common usage!

share|improve this answer
See my answer. The -able ending sounds wrong with intransitive words. If you use "assume" in its transitive sense ("assume a position"), the adjectival form makes more sense. "There are some yoga poses that just aren't assumable for me." – res Nov 18 '10 at 21:03
@res: yes, but "assume" and "presume" are so close in sound and meaning and aren't (I think) differently transitive: surely "presumably" only sounds more correct to me because it's more commonly used? – thesunneversets Nov 18 '10 at 21:19
I think you're right, and "presume" somehow made the leap to the adverbial form a long time ago, and, indeed it now sounds better because you've heard it more often. The appeal to transitivity is the best I could come up with to answer the question of "why?". Possibly somewhere in our murky Middle English past, "presume" had the stronger transitive sense. (Online etymological sources are vague.) – res Nov 18 '10 at 21:36

Supposably and supposedly have different meanings, because their suffixes have different meanings.

-ably means it is possible. -edly means it has been done.

Supposably is not an alternative pronunciation of supposedly. Supposably and supposedly are two different words. It can only be said of a single word that it has alternative pronunciations.

share|improve this answer
No. See res's answer. – Colin Fine Nov 19 '10 at 14:17
If anyone hasn't picked up on it yet, this is what my answer was supposed to imply. And I did the supposing. – Jon Purdy Nov 20 '10 at 22:02
In all the examples I've heard, the speaker clearly intended the word "supposedly". – ukayer Nov 25 '10 at 15:40

Correct or incorrect isn't relevant. Ultimately the meanings of words will change and become what the majority decide they mean. Consider terrific and horrific, which were initially synonymous along the lines of their root words, terrible and horrible. Unfortunately or fortunately, the English language is a living thing and subject to change without notice by those who use it. Though I abhor the use of words like supposably, I can imagine the day when words like it will be of common usage, irregardless of my opinion. It could be considered ironical.

share|improve this answer

I used to study linguistics at Paris V, and one day, around 1987 or '88, I was roaming the halls of the Sorbonne and somehow ended up sitting and chatting with Andre Martinet and Jeanne Martinet. If I recall correctly, Martinet maintained that the correctness of a word is purely statistical. If enough people use it, it's a real word. I also studied under lexicologist Robert Gallison, who was one of the people, again if I remember correctly, who decided what words made it into the Larousse. Supposably, in some alternate universe, elephants have wings, and therefore, depending upon whether that universe really or only supposably exists, they do or merely could. And yet, I wouldn't be caught dead using the word "supposably" in an actual conversation.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.