The American Heritage Dictionary notes about adverbs like hardly that

they are not truly negative in meaning. The sentence Mary hardly laughed means that Mary did laugh a little, not that she kept from laughing altogether, and therefore does not express a negative proposition.

However, they are similar to negative adverbs in that they combine with any and at all, as in “I hardly saw him at all.”

With this in mind, which sentence below would be correct?

A) Putin is hardly popular among Germans, but so is the prospect of a scrap with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf.

B) Putin is hardly popular among Germans, but neither is the prospect of a scrap with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf.

[Source for (A): ‘Was Ukraine Betrayed at Geneva?’ by Rajan Menon, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/was-ukraine-betrayed-geneva-10306?page=1]

I would say (B), since the idea could be paraphrased as follows: Putin is not popular, but neither is war with Russia. But would this be true for any compound sentence where the first clause contains hardly? Or would it depend on whether hardly is indicating a truly negative quality or a minimally positive one?

2 Answers 2


Well, as you point out, hardly is a negative trigger.
I.e, it can license Negative Polarity Items in construction with it.
Any and at all are NPIs, but there are lots more in English.

Checking out the negative strength of hardly (as shown in this freshman-level puzzle),
we find that it works with some NPIs

  • I hardly have any ~ I hardly ever do it ~ He hardly budged ~ He hardly has a red cent.
  • He's hardly done it in weeks ~ They'll hardly arrive until noon ~ I hardly have much time.

but not so well with others

  • ?He's hardly arrived yet ~ ?You hardly need stare at him
  • ?I hardly dare disturb him. ~ ?It will hardly take long

and with still others, it's terrible; both of the following are ungrammatical, for instance:

  • *I hardly saw people there to speak of
  • *I would hardly mind fighting with her

So, to that extent hardly is a negative.
It's a strange word, and shares this level of negativity with seldom, rarely, and scarcely.

  • Thanks - these examples show some of the ambiguities. ‘Sarah hardly laughed at all’ is fine, but ‘Sarah hardly laughed, and neither did I’ seems odd. I don’t see a pattern.
    – neubau
    Apr 23, 2014 at 12:50
  • 1
    Importantly, it would normally cause the sentence to take a positive question tag: There were people there, weren't there? versus there were hardly any people there, were there? This also seems to show that hardly is negative. Jan 8, 2015 at 14:01
  • Ah, but the plural doesn't happen in a contraction There's hardly any people there, isn't there?, which reminds me of Indian English There's hardly any people there, isn't it? Jan 13, 2015 at 15:45

If you check at say AHD, you will see that different senses are given for 'hardly'. Where I start to worry about their treatment is that they lump all of these usages in the 'adverb' catch-all, even though the distributions are easily separable.

Mary hardly laughed in the usually understood sense ('Mary hardly laughed at all') certainly has 'hardly' associated with the verb 'laugh(ed)', but I'd say this is not a true adverbial modification (saying something more about the manner say of laughing) but telling us more about the limits of the action. It seems to be the verb-related analogue of 'a determiner rather than an adjective', referencing the context of the verb rather than truly modifying it. I'd class it as a limiting modifier here. Compare 'John almost died'.

On the other hand, Putin is hardly popular among Germans uses 'hardly' as a modal pragmatic marker being dismissive of / assigning near-zero probability to the statement in the main clause (as seen by the rewrites 'Putin - popular among Germans? Hardly!' or 'One could hardly say that Putin is popular among Germans). The first rewrite possibly strengthens my claim that the correct alternative here is [B]:

Putin is hardly popular among Germans, but [then] neither is the prospect of a scrap with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf.

  • Yes, in the Putin example ‘hardly’ is functioning as an emphatic negative, like ‘of course not,’ so the NPI ‘neither’ is appropriate.
    – neubau
    Apr 23, 2014 at 12:51
  • Yet whichever sense is meant, ‘hardly’ still seems to act as a negative trigger (the essence of my question, I think.)
    – neubau
    Apr 23, 2014 at 12:51
  • John Lawler gives a fine analysis, and gives a judiciously hedged summary. Apr 23, 2014 at 16:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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