Rotely

Jasprizza Will asks Language Log if rotely is a “real word.” Mark Liberman replies that it occurs in newspaper writing — even, on occasion, in the New York Times — and in the scholarly journals. For example, Carol Sue Englert et al. write in “Influence of Irrelevant Information in Addition Word Problems on Problem Solving” (1987),

Blankenship and Lovitt (1976), for example, found that in the presence of irrelevant numerical information, LD [Learning Disabled] students rotely added all numbers.

The more subtle question is whether rotely can be used as an adverb. In this example, it modifies added, and Liberman provides instances of rotely modifying turned out, tinkled out and affixed, in addition to usages like “material rotely learned” and “rotely feminized ‘conformity’.” Now, sometimes the -ly suffix turns a noun into an adjective (for example, kingly), but television raised me to think that its main use is turning adjectives into adverbs:


For adverbial rotely to feel legitimate, one would have to be comfortable with rote as an adjective. This might happen if you interpret constructions like rote learning as adjective + noun, instead of seeing rote as an attributive noun. (Was there ever a time when grade-school grammar lessons included talk of attributive nouns? I sure don’t remember any. Heck, talk of grammar didn’t make any sense at all until I studied foreign languages, Latin in particular. Long litanies of “rules” which must ne’er be “broken” do not produce understanding. But I digress.)

Or, you could be a lawyer. Joe Ruby writes that

lawyers use “timely” in the adverbial sense. “The complaint was timely filed with the court but untimely served on the defendant.” So there is perhaps a precedent for a formation like “rotely.”

I have it on good authority that students in law school use tort for gossiping purposes: “She and her boyfriend torted all weekend long.” So, if you’re willing to be like that. . . .

As for myself, I like rotely. It’s the sort of word which makes iambic pentameter even more fun.

Our lives are far too short for wasted breath,
For prayers to Ptah or jealous Seth,
So cheerly loose the rules we rotely learned,
And learn each day, and hold at bay our death.

4 thoughts on “Rotely”

  1. Rotely only sounds marginally horrible to me.

    Timely, however, sounds insanely bad, which is bad for me because accountants use it in this context too and I edit technical accounting literature. Of course, I’m editing the codification of all U.S. generally accepted accounting principles, so I do have the power to change this…but that would be wrong.

  2. Sssh! It’s only wrong if you get caught!

    Actually, after saying it over and over in my head, “rotely” has started to sound like the name of a spice. You know, some kind of root which English people ground up and put in shepherd’s pies.

    Why my brain does this kind of thing, I haven’t the foggiest idea.

  3. No, Nicole, that would be totally, unequivocally, right. If you could keep just one person from using “timely” as an adverb, you would have done the world a service; if you could stop an entire profession from doing so, you would be a hero. At least in my opinion.
    I think I’m more ok with “rotely” than with timely primarily because it’s clearly a modification of the word “rote”, and it’s pretty clear what it means. Also, replacing “memorized by rote” with “rotely memorized”, is simply replacing a two word adverbial phrase with a single (albeit made up) adverb; I suspect that was the original use of “rotely” and it seems perfectly reasonable to me. So I’m willing to call “rotely” another example of the evolution of the English language, rather than the corruption of it.
    “Timely”, on the other hand, is already a perfectly good adjective. To try to use it as an adverb instead is just bad grammar. Worse, it’s confusingly bad grammar, which is far more offensive (at least to me) than the fairly innocuous “me and John went to the store” variety of bad grammar. And it just sounds bad. But I’ve gone on much longer than intended.

  4. Strangely, according to Merriam Webster “timely” is attested as an adverb before as an adjective (12th vs. 13th centuries). But…I may be ready to be a hero.

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