Writing for Business

Dec 8 2009   2:18PM GMT

Supposedly vs. supposably

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Which is correct?
Although data warehousing was ________ going to be a panacea for enterprise data problems, things haven’t worked out that way.
a. supposedly
b. supposably

Answer: a

Supposedly means reputed to be the case and may imply some degree of doubt, uncertainty or cynicism. Supposably, on the other hand, refers to something that may be supposed — we don’t know whether, for example, the sun will come up tomorrow. However, we may suppose that it will.

I have to admit that I didn’t think supposably was a word at all until I came across an entry in The Grammar Devotional today. And furthermore, I assumed that people who used it were not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

As it turns out, supposably is acceptable in American English but not in British English. I’m in Canada, so — at least in this respect — I can do as I please. I’m adopting supposably because it has a different and useful meaning.

That’s not to say that I have to change my mind about most of the people who use supposably. I maintain that most of them don’t know that there are two different words and the one they want is supposedly.

One case in point: A supervisor my son once had used supposably frequently and incorrectly. He also used the (non-)word pacifically. As in “Pacifically, I’d like you to work from 9:15 to 12:45.” And he didn’t mean that he wanted my son work peacefully. That guy was a mineful of gems, really. “Most times out of ten,” one of his stand-bys, was thrilling to me. Meaning, I guess, more often than not but trying to make it more “pacific.”

As in, “most times out of ten, when people say supposably, they mean supposedly.”

Kirk Mahoney has an interesting post about supposedly vs. supposably.

I had to laugh at his research method, though:

… here is an unorthodox but still fairly reliable method to determine which of “supposedly” or “supposably” is more likely to be the correct form: search Google separately for each of “supposedly” and “supposably”; the one with the dominant number of hits or matches is very likely the correct form (unless the language has fallen apart on the Web!).

“…unless the language has fallen apart on the Web!” Supposably, he’s joking. I mean, come on, kids — is there any doubt?

Okay — I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Google is no spell checker. It’s also no grammar checker. If you’re using it for either of these, you need to find a new source.

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