There are a number of words that mean "generally believed to be true but not necessarily true" but their connotations differ tremendously.

Some examples of these are

  • allegedly
  • putatively
  • supposedly
  • seemingly
  • ostensibly

So, if I wanted to say something like,

FOIA requests seem to be for the protection of the American public, but what is the government actually hiding?

I would intend it to imply something more sinister.

In the past, I always thought it was more appropriate to use the word ostensibly. Likewise the expression allegedly is also fine in the following because an allegation is often used when charging someone with breaking the law. For example, "The Plaintiff claims that Defendant broke into the home where he allegedly stole several items."

Whereas seemingly is reserved for more neutral statements: "The water is boiling seemingly because of the presence of steam."

Is there a generally accepted usage of these words that can be placed on a sort of continuum of connotation? Or do these words resist or defy any classification?

  • You could probably "score" each based on several different characteristics, but there are so many special cases (such as the habitual use of "allegedly" in criminal complaints) that it wouldn't do much good.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 15 '14 at 2:25
  • 1
    I don't think "The water is boiling seemingly because of the presence of steam" is a credible English utterance. I could accept "Jack is boiling [with rage] seemingly because of the presence of Jill" (it appears that it's her presence which is annoying him intensely). But in the ordinary world, boiling water causes steam, not the other way around. Dec 15 '14 at 3:31
  • 1
    ... The water is boiling steamingly. Dec 15 '14 at 3:41
  • @FumbleFingers do you mean to say that it is not a credible "English" utterance or not a credible "Logical" utterance? They're semantically different. ;)
    – franklin
    Dec 15 '14 at 15:01
  • @franklin: Obviously it's logically possible to design a heat exchange system whereby [possibly, superheated, pressurised] steam is used to boil water. And it's therefore possible an observer might be "under the impression" that the reason the water is boiling is because of steam. It's possible to arrange words into all sorts of apparently nonsensical patterns where an obscure contrived context might make them "meaningful". But it's a fairly pointless exercise for people who aren't already completely fluent in the use of English. Dec 15 '14 at 15:22

It's more a constellation than a continuum, but here's what I would say:

  • allegedly (we are distancing ourselves from responsibility for something)
  • purportedly (someone else has responsibility for it)
  • seemingly (I take some responsibility for the evidence given me by my senses)
  • supposedly (other entities have indicated it might be true, which I may or may not agree with)
  • ostensibly (an assertion has been made, and I'm making an inference about that)
  • putatively (someone has applied a label to a thing or situation and I may or may not agree that it is apt)

I thought about trying to put these in order, but I can't. The words aren't really a progression.

  • I think a progression is exactly what we're looking for.
    – franklin
    Dec 15 '14 at 3:28
  • 2
    You may be looking for a progression, but that doesn't mean one exists.
    – Robusto
    Dec 15 '14 at 3:41
  • 4
    'It's more a constellation than a continuum'. Stellar. Dec 15 '14 at 3:43
  • For supposedly, I'm not sure about the "which I may or may not agree with" part. I wouldn't expect to hear supposedly for a claim that the speaker agrees with; I think it usually means that the speaker disagrees with it, though occasionally the speaker actually feels neutrally.
    – ruakh
    Dec 15 '14 at 6:25
  • Also, for ostensibly, an actual assertion does not have to have been made; it may be that something was merely implied, or even simply that it was a natural inference that was then left uncorrected.
    – ruakh
    Dec 15 '14 at 6:27

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