Cat Crossing: The Romance of Judith Stanton
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Barely, Hardly, Scarcely, And Other Dangerous Pairs

Here's a quandary. At the outset of my romance, my heroine hardly knows my hero. Or does she scarcely know him? Or should I say barely? And how do I figure this one out? My ear tells me that scarcely is not quite right. We don't know people scarcely. My heroine may have scarcely two dimes to rub together, but not knowing the hero well is more a matter of barely knowing him. Or hardly knowing him. Which is it? I would like to be sure.

I turn to my well-worn Webster's Tenth Collegiate for advice, to barely, and am cross-referenced to hardly and scarcely, as if they are synonyms. Oh dear. The very notion of synonyms misleads people. Synonyms--words of similar meaning--are never exactly interchangeable. Language is efficient. Virtually every word in English is unique. With these three words I want the fine shadings of difference.

The two slim definitions of barely don't help much. The first equates it with scarcely and hardly as if they were identical. The second compares it to plainly, as in a meager manner.

On to hardly. This is encouraging. It gives five senses of the word, two of which apply. Hardly is "used to emphasize a minimal amount" as in "I hardly knew her" or "almost new with hardly a scratch upon it." It can also mean "Certainly not" as in "that news is hardly surprising."

The first example is right on target.

How about scarcely? Webster's gives four senses, each with an example:

  • "By a narrow margin, only just [had scarcely rung the bell when the door flew open]
  • Almost not [scarcely ever wore this mantle]
  • Certainly not [could scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast]
  • Probably not [there could scarcely have been found a leader better equipped]

Not the senses that I need. I think.

After going to all this trouble, I hope that hardly fits the sense I mean. But don't the cross-references suggest the words are interchangeable? Uncertain still, I turn to a useful primer on matters of style and usage, the Harbrace College Handbook. To my consternation, it doesn't consider my dilemma (oops, wrong word)--my quandary important enough to list among its Words Frequently Confused (e.g., allude/ elude, clothes/ cloths, conscience/ conscious, elicit/ illicit, lightening/ lightning, and many more pitfalls for the conscientious writer).

It does mention hardly and scarcely in its usage glossary, with a caution against using them in double negatives. But I can't hardly imagine myself doing that.

Looking for a definitive answer, I take out Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, a guide that almost never lets me down. Barely is not defined. We're cautioned to use it with when, not than (he had barely begun to fight when it was over) and to avoid the double negative. And it cross-references us to hardly. There, the same issues are discussed, and we're cross-referenced to scarcely for more of the same.

But in regard to the differences among the three words my trusted Usage Dictionary is silent. [Sidebar: Why would between sound better than among, and why would it be wrong?]

I should have been more patient with the definitions and examples in the dictionary. My heroine hardly knew him. The example gave me the model I needed. Whew. My journey has taken me through three different, equally valid, reference works, and shown me that language is very slippery in the end. Another time, I might find the answer in Harbrace, another time in the usage dictionary. After all this effort, perhaps I should lie down. Or is that lay?

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