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I have a question concerning usage of the word "largely". While proof-reading a text written by a colleague* I saw a phrase similar to the following:

"Because of these advantages, technique X largely contributed to the understanding of Y."

My gut feeling was that this doesn't convey the intended meaning of "X contributed a lot to Y", but rather "X mainly contributed to Y, and that's the most it ever did."

He came up with examples that seemed to confirm his use of the word, but most of them were English-language websites of non-English-speaking companies. My own Google research was somewhat inconclusive: some instances came up, but again with a large bias towards non-native speakers.

Which is right?

*Both of us are native German speakers.

EDIT: Perhaps I should clarify that I do not fear the original sentence, in its context, might be actually misunderstood in the way I suggested, just that it would stand out as improper use of the adverb, and break the flow of reading.

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  • 1
    Consider John is generous, but he largely contributes to lost causes. To me that doesn't mean John gives a large amount of money to lost causes. Perhaps he does, but that's a contextual implication. It actually means the greater part of his contributory activities is directed towards lost causes. That's to say in OP's context, largely = mostly, but to my BrE ear largely here is somewhat more formal (and may even be indicative of a "pretentious" style). Dec 15 '14 at 13:21
  • @FumbleFingers The "John is generous" part sets the focus of the sentence to be on Johns contribution rather than the cause. In the OP "Because of these advantages" sets technique X up as better than other techniques implying that the 'larger' applies to it's proportion of contribution to Y. You could completely reverse the meaning saying something like "The research was quite specialised, technique X largely contributed to the understanding of Y."
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 15 '14 at 16:20
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    @JamesRyan: Pragmatically/contextually, I'm quite well aware of what OP's example is intended to mean. I'm simply pointing out that (for me, at least) that's not a "valid" use of adverbial largely. Dec 15 '14 at 16:26
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I share your disagreement with your colleague. largely has two common meanings:

  1. Mostly (¨for the most part¨)
  2. On a large scale

The first meaning is entirely inappropriate, because it is talking about the distribution of activity across the available options.

Largely it contributed to the understanding of Y but it also, at times, turned up new insights into problem Z.

So this is about how much of X´s application contributed to Y and how much it did other things.

The other meaning of largely also does not help, because while it does say that X contributed on a large scale, it does not say how that compares to any other input that may help with Y. For all we know, everything related to Y may be done on a large scale; it may simply be a big task however you approach it. It would be much better to phrase this in a way that clearly shows the importance of the contribution:

... technique X contributed very significantly to the understanding of Y

... technique X was the principal contributor to the understanding of Y

... technique X has been crucial to improving the understanding of Y

Any of those would emphasis the key contribution made by X and remove the risk of ambiguity. They are also more idiomatic.

That said, largely would work if the subject and object in the phrase were inverted:

... the understanding of Y was largely improved by technique X.

With it this way round, the mostly meaning of largely becomes appropriate, because it shows that X is the principal contributor.

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  • +1 for pointing out the change in meaning when the subject and object are inverted.
    – Erik Kowal
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:15
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For non-native speakers of most languages, traps exist in relation to the use of words which appear, from their formal definitions, to be close synonyms. There are several different reasons for this.

One them is the fact that certain collocations tend to prevail over time, reflecting the fact that for various reasons (or with particular situations), speakers of that language have grown to prefer particular combinations over others. For example:

a) Who is your significant other? [a psychobabble term meaning "love interest/sexual partner/spouse, etc."]

is idiomatic, but

b) *Who is your important other?

is not.

Sometimes, completely different meanings can emerge from the use of what might seem to be almost exact synonyms. For instance:

i) That mountain is very close to us

and

ii) That mountain is very near to us

mean exactly the same thing. However, the adverbs derived from them do not; the sentences

iii) I'm closely following his progress [idiomatic]

and

iv) *I'm nearly following his progress [totally unidiomatic, with an unclear meaning]

are not at all similar in terms of the meanings they generate.

Another complication is that because word order is important in English, the position of a word in a sentence can have a significant effect on its meaning. For example:

1) Technique X largely contributed to the understanding of Y

means "Technique X's main contribution was in terms of the understanding of Y."

However, if we change the order slightly:

2) Technique X contributed largely to the understanding of Y

an ambiguity is introduced, because a slightly different additional meaning can be inferred:
"Technique X's contribution to the understanding of Y was significant."

Now let's take what many people might think of as a close synonym of 'largely' — greatly — and substitute that into sentences 1) and 2):

3) Technique X greatly contributed to the understanding of Y

4) Technique X contributed greatly to the understanding of Y

Here — for no particularly logical reason — unlike the case with 'largely', the meanings of these two sentences are exactly the same, namely "Technique X made a very large contribution to the understanding of Y".

Unfortunately, as is probably apparent by now, these kinds of distinctions cannot be perceived using logic alone. They must be repeatedly encountered (preferably in a meaningful context) and learned.

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  • +1, particularly for showing the different semantic weights of largely and how they can be tweaked by simple changes in word order. James, greatly just does not have the mostly potential meaning that largely does. If you don´t see ambiguity, that doesn´t mean it is not there.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 12:05
  • If you wish to have a discussion, I advise English Language & Usage Chat. Dec 15 '14 at 13:37
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It would depend on the context somewhat. In isolation, I would take this sentence:

"Because of these advantages, technique X largely contributed to the understanding of Y."

to mean:

"X played a major role in the understanding of Y."

To me, this doesn't say anything one way or the other about X's contribution to other things.

Without further elaboration, you would likely need some outside knowledge to evaluate that. For example, if X was "the theory of gravity", there are probably a lot of Ys that it contributed to. But if X was "the discovery of the melting point of chocolate", it's probably not so big.

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  • I would see that as an interpretation which assumes that the author has phrased it poorly and that is your best estimate at the meaning. It is not a good way to express it, being ambiguous and inexact.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 10:44
  • @itsbruce it isn't ambiguous at all. It would be phrased poorly if it meant anything other than this interpretation!
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 15 '14 at 11:34
  • I really don´t think this is the idiomatic or most natural way to express this, @JamesRyan.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 12:00
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    Is this perhaps a sort of subtle difference between regional variants of English? Dec 15 '14 at 12:26
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    I would tend to assume that´s what the author meant, given the context, but I would still consider it poorly worded.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:42
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Your colleague is right in his usage. In this context it unambiguously means "In comparison to all the contributions to Y, X's contribution was large." The focus is on Y and it says nothing about other things X resulted in.

The term can also be used in a different context in the form "Doing X largely results in Y" which focuses on X saying that it results in Y and little else.

The difference between the two uses is quite subtle and depends entirely on context and might be easy to misuse or misunderstand if you are not a native English speaker. (Incidently I think if you directly substituted the word significantly you would have the same problem)

Apparently the difference is also tricky for some native english speakers too :P

You could say "X contributed largely, to y" or "X contributed, largely to Y" to specify each meaning. Without any commas the sentence "X contributed to Y" can be either meaning. So the OP says largely contributed (note word order reversed), this means the contribution was large but it is grammatically left unspecified what it is large in relation to, but that is left to context.

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    Significantly would not have the same problem; it doesn´t carry the same range of meanings. Context will tend to improve the clarity of any phrase but some word choices are more pertinent to start with.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:05
  • @itsbruce I think you are adding false implications to the use of the word largely then. In this sentence it is a direct synonym for significantly and both words suffer the same ambiguity as to whether they apply to X or Y. Adding a comma or changing the context changes the meaning, using a different word does not. At no point are we saying that the contribution is absolutely large or significant, only in relation to other contributions by X or for Y. No additional meanings of large apply and if they did then why wouldn't significant apply? Please give an example.
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:12
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    I gave my examples clearly in my answer. They make my case and can be argued against there. largely has a range of meanings and the context of the wording in the OP´s example does not single out your chosen meaning. The definitions I have offered can be found in any dictionary reference. The fact that a word is a possible synonym does not make it the best in any particular situation. You´ve given no example of a comma changing the meaning and it isn´t actually directly relevant to this.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:18
  • @itsbruce You can say something is large but you can also say something is significant. Whether the largeness or significance applies absolutely or relatively to something else is an ambiguity that can apply to both terms. Your examples imply that you think something can only be significant or not, that isn't the case.
    – JamesRyan
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:21
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    But James, to make your comma work, you have adopted Erik´s inversion of the word order, which you had not before. Commas made no sense in the original. In fact, you´ve accepted Erik´s altered meaning and then added a comma to alter it again.
    – itsbruce
    Dec 15 '14 at 13:38

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