I usually don't have trouble distinguishing when I should use an adjective and when an adverb. But today I wrote a sentence, and wasn't sure — actually, the longer I looked at it, the longer both variants looked wrong.

The sentence was about baking, and it said:

While it is best to use a recipe designed for a big batch, using a multiplied by three small-batch recipe is no more probable to fail than using the small-batch recipe for a single small batch.

While there is probably a way to state the whole idea more clearly, what nags me is the probable. It qualifies using, and using is, of course, a form of the verb "to use" (my English classes are too far in the past to be able to name the form). So maybe it should be the adverb probably, because it is qualifying a verb.

But this is not what my intuition says, and after years of being exposed to almost always grammatically correct English, I have learned to trust my language intuition. Maybe in this case I am mixing it up with the grammar rules for some other language, but I feel that probable and not probably is correct here. Which, of course, is contrary to the rule above. My best explanation is that the phrase "using X" is describing a process, not an action, and is therefore somehow a replacement for a noun, and "using X is no more probable to fail than" is correct for the same reason that "the option of using X is no more probable to fail than...", but this could be just a poor rationalization of my already formed opinion.

So which form is correct, and why?

  • 2
    If you used probably the sentence would have to be rewritten. I think it works as is, but the choice of probable does feel a little strained. I would choose likely in that location. [Though from a cooking perspective, I would say it is more likely to fail, due to the density, pressure, surface area and other factors effecting the success rate of the item being baked, particularly in tricky aerated things like cakes and souffles.]
    – Orbling
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 0:26
  • @Orbling, I thought you knew how I think about cooking - I described probability distributions in the previous paragraphs :). So I think that "probable" is OK in this case. [from a cooking perspective, the context made it clear that he is making 36 cupcakes with the triple recipe, not 12 triple sized ones - so the statement should be correct].
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 0:35
  • Ah well, if it's more cakes, rather than a bigger one, then the only issues would be overfilling the oven, using alternate shelves (in ovens with non-uniform heat), or having the wet mixture sitting about too long while dishing the mixture out in to cases. Mind you, probably off topic here. ;-)
    – Orbling
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 0:38
  • @Orbling, if that's what you think, you could upvote me over at SA, because that's what I was explaining. But I somehow lost Aaronut over the course of the explanation (could my convoluted sentences have something to do with it?), so I could use the support. </shameless plug>.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 0:57
  • I lose him on almost every point. I'll pop by.
    – Orbling
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 1:06

4 Answers 4


In the following sentence:

While it is best to use a recipe designed for a big batch, using a multiplied by three small-batch recipe is no more probable to fail than using the small-batch recipe for a single small batch,

probable is the head of the adjectival phrase, probable to fail, which qualifies the noun phrase using a ... small-batch recipe, whose head is the gerund (noun), using.

  • 1
    Correction: the whole point of the gerund is that it is not the present participle. It just happens to be identical in form to the present participle, in contemporary English, but that hasn't always been the case. I think it should be highlighted more strongly that using acts as a noun here; it is not a verb or even a verb form; it even takes a verb itself. "Using... is... probable". Much like "hiking is great" (not "greatly") or "swimming is hard" (not "hardly"). That's really all.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 8:48
  • Thank you both for clearing that up. It seems that I was thinking about the right thing, but had forgotten the formal rule.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 13:35
  • @RegDwight: I disagree. You confuse the present participle with the present continuous tense. The present participle of use is using. This can either be a gerund on its own or combined with an auxiliary to form the present continuous tense. The same goes for the past particple, used, which on its own is neither a verb nor a tense; it can be taken as an adjective or combined with the auxiliary to form the past continuous tense.
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 16:53
  • @RegDwight: Sorry if I sounded rude in my rebuttal. I didn't bother to follow the links you posted before responding, as I'm of the school that pays no attention to such etymological distinctions. Wikipedia wasn't convincing, but your answer was. I understand your argument now...but old ways of thinking die hard; hard to unlearn what I learned from my strict grammarian teachers. Again, apologies for the uncalled-for refutal of your sound, well-researched argument. I'll edit my answer as per your suggestion in a few hours.
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 23:37
  • @RegDwigнt, Jimi. I know this post is quite old but... Try modifying using here in terms of manner, and you'll have to use an adverb not an adjective eg carefully using. Compare that to her dreadful playing of the violin where only an adjective is possible. The -ing form here is undoubtedly more verb than noun-like. Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 18:22

The way you have it now is correct (for reasons explained in the other answers) but sounds awkward. I would use "likely" instead of "probable."

  • Is "likely" still better when I am explicitly meaning statistical probability? (Don't let the topic fool you, I actually crunched some numbers to prove the statement, under the assumption of a Gaussian distribution etc.)
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 13:34
  • They mean exactly the same thing, but since "likely" is so much more common a term than "probable" it sounds more natural. Note that "likelihood" and "probability" are synonyms. I bet but don't know for sure they have alternating German and French origins; there are a lot of pairs of English words that mean the same thing because one came from Germanic roots and the other French.
    – jhocking
    Commented Apr 10, 2011 at 14:08

Probable refers to the present participle using, which takes an adjective. Thus, the sentence is correct.


Where N is an event, "N is probable" is OK. But "probable to fail" is wrong. As Orbling and jhocking have suggested, "likely" is better. "Probable" and "likely" have similar meanings, but, unlike "likely", "probable" can't take an infinitive clause.

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