Ancillary is already something of an uncommon word in conversation, but it came up recently in a StackOverflow chat room in the following example:

Person 1: "Are you talking about me?"
Person 2: "Ancillarily."

Now, obviously text editors are going to mark this as incorrect, but my question is, can we technically use this adverb form of Ancillary? Is it grammatically legal "to ancillarily talk" (mind my split infinitive) about someone?

To give more context, Person 1 asked a question, and Persons 3 and 4 (not appearing in the above story) discussed the answer to Person 1's question, and the merits of different methods for answering it.

  • 4
    By definition, only verbs conjugate, but you can ask for inflections.
    – choster
    Jun 10, 2014 at 18:55
  • I can't find the word in the online dictionaries I usually go by. It is probably mentioned in OED, with the obvious meaning, but fewer people would use it than would say 'It is I'. And we know what advice we've been given about them by Professor Pullum. Jun 10, 2014 at 19:06
  • Downvoter, please comment on why this was downvoted.
    – TylerH
    Jun 10, 2014 at 20:32
  • @choster: But inflection only involves endings, not just any suffix. This is not inflection because it isn't about an ending. Jun 11, 2014 at 3:38
  • 1
    – tchrist
    Jun 11, 2014 at 5:41

2 Answers 2


Whether a word appears — or fails to appear — in this or that dictionary is no sound measure of its legitimacy. In general, words created through standard derivational morphology need no special headword entry that’s separately attested dictionarially.

Standard English derivational morphology allows for the creation of adverbs of manner from most adjectives by appending -ly to that adjective.

When the adjective itself ends in -y, of course there is a spelling change, but note also that said adjective probably came from a noun to start with, through a different production.

So fun the noun became funny the adjective became funnily the adverb. Just apply the rules, and you make words. There is no “grammatical rule” blocking the form you speak of from appearing. That’s really all you need to know.

Whether you consider some of these awkward is a different matter. Some of these do get long and potentially cumbersome, like anticipatorily, discretionarily, or parliamentarily. But they still are “words”, because you can always make these up as you need them.

So for example, if there were some capillary action, then something could be acting capillarily, although this might sound odd. Or I could send you a missive epistolarily, which is no harder than your own example.

If things become too awkward for your own personal tastes, you can always rephrase it into something more like in an epistolary manner.

Now me, if someone said they were speaking of me ancillarily, I might wonder why they were considering me for a handmaiden’s job. But that’s because I have older associations with ancilla than just the ancillary sense of an auxiliary.

  • Thanks for the answer, though I didn't mention anywhere about dictionaries :-)
    – TylerH
    Jun 11, 2014 at 13:08
  • 1
    @TylerH Well, you did ask whether we could “technically” use the word. The technical answer is that sure, of course one can do so, because derivational morphology leads there and is not blocked. The practical answer may be otherwise. I think you are bumping up against the same thing that bugs people about turning -ly adjectives like silly into -lily adverbs like sillily: they wind up being a mouthful, so you avoid saying them for fear of saying them uglily.
    – tchrist
    Jun 11, 2014 at 14:01

OED does not list the adverbial form, though Google Books NGram shows non-zero frequency from 1944 onward. Before using it, you might ask yourself if the well-established adverb “incidentally” might not do as well or better.

  • I'm waging a war against the adverb catch-all. Don't chuck in adbverbs as well. Jun 10, 2014 at 19:09
  • Typo duly noted and corrected. You seem to be mighty selective about which common and established usages are properly warred against, @EdwinAshworth . Jun 10, 2014 at 19:16
  • I don't agree with everything the PoS group at Sussex came up with, but there's some valuable re-analysis there. 'Common and established' is time-dependent. I've seen 'please' classed as an adverb because of [a selected part of] its distribution. And the particle 'along' lumped in with its prepositional look-alike, when it behaves differently on occasion: He pushed the cart along the road. He pushed the cart along. It was along the road that he pushed the cart. *It was along that he pushed the cart. Jun 10, 2014 at 19:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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