Q&A: Supposedly vs Supposably

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, is “supposably” a real word? Supposedly it is…

Q: …and then they said, “do you have it in green?”
A: Hahaaaa, that’s brilliant!
Q: I know, probably the funniest joke I’ve ever heard. Oooh–the blog readers are here.
A: Ahem, okay, so umm, how can we help you today?
Q: Well, I wanted to ask you about a word. It’s supposedly valid, but I’m not convinced.
A: You didn’t put money on it did you?
Q: No way. My days of betting on English grammar are over – ever since that large sum I lost on a preposition.
A: High stakes action here folks. So, don’t suppose you could tell us the word?
Q: I suppose I could.
A: Supposedly, it’s giving you headaches.
Q: It is. I’m talking about the word “supposably”.
A: Ah, right.
Q: It’s not real, is it? Please tell me it’s just a speech impediment, like when someone says they’ll “arks their supervisor”…
A: Actually, it is a word – but also a little contentious. If you type “supposably” into Microsoft Word, it’s likely to rest softly on that ubiquitous red squiggly line. However most dictionaries of the world will begrudgingly admit its existence.
Q: Why begrudgingly?
A: Because hardly anyone uses it in its rare, near extinct meaning – instead it is commonly used (especially in speech) in place of “supposedly”.
Q: Okay, so we’ve used “supposedly” already a few times today – and its meaning is to indicate that something is generally assumed or believed. Yes?
A: That’s right – albeit often with a hint of doubt as to the truth of that thing. For example, “Australia won the game, because the opposition was supposedly offside in the final minute.”
Q: So where does “supposably” come into this whole thing? Does it mean the same thing?
A: No, it doesn’t at all. Unlike “supposedly” (from “supposed”), this is the adverb form of “supposable” and means “capable of being supposed” – basically another way of saying “conceivably”. Quite different.
Q: Example using each one?
A: “You could supposably eat two kilograms of sausages in one sitting, if you were hungry enough. However, according to a recent study, processed meats supposedly increase your risk of cancer.”
Q: So why do so many people use it when they mean to say “supposedly”?
A: Mainly laziness and ignorance. Same reason people continue to use “irregardless” when there is in fact no such word (just use “regardless”).
Q: Is it a new phenomenon?
A: “Supposably” has supposedly been kicking around since the 1600s, and maybe that’s the problem. Language has moved on; we have better ways to say the same thing (e.g. “conceivably” or “imaginably”). It’s generally listed in all the dictionaries of the world, even though it’s America that seems to use it more.
Q: And most of the time when people are using it, they actually should be using “supposedly” anyway.
A: Supposedly.
Q: And conversely, even if we did somehow manage to use “supposably” correctly, others who don’t know better may think we had it wrong!
A: That’s right. Just avoid it entirely. Supposably, a sentence could be constructed and it would supposedly be good grammar, but we’re saying to steer clear.
Q: Brilliant. Okay, now I have a related question…
A: Sure, fire away.
Q: Well I want to know if I’m using this suppository correctly…
A: No, sorry, we’re out.

Do you have a grammar grizzle, punctuation problem or style snafu that you’d like our Q&A to explore? We’d love to hear it! Just email us here.

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