Ask Language Log: Lengthly

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Reader CL writes:

I've been using "lengthly" all this time; my mother used it; I believe her mother, an English teacher at a high school in Brooklyn, used it. Today, at almost 33, I saw a wiggly line from a word processor that was my first clue it's not actually a word. Wiktionary says "misspelled form of lengthy."

How did this happen? Is it widespread though (prescriptively) wrong?

Let's start with what seems to have happened. English has a common word-formation process for making nouns into adjectives by adding -ly: kingly, queenly, scholarly, manly, cowardly, weatherly, hourly, yearly, … And English has another common word-formation process for making nouns into adjectives by adding -y: homey, stony, thirsty, icy, rainy, snowy, thorny, fiery, hairy, earthy,

Both of these processes are at least somewhat productive. If we have an eccentric friend named George, who has just done something characteristically odd, I might say "That was a very George-y thing to do"; and I might also say, with a slightly different meaning, "That was a very George-ly thing to do".

There are a few nouns with well-established derivatives of both types: earthy and earthly, homey and homely, for example. And there are plenty of nouns lacking an established derivative of either sort — laptop, for example. This doesn't prevent occasional lexical creativity:

Our laptops been all loopy & half dead to the laptoply world lately, but WOOOOOOHOOOOO she lives once more "Hallaluyah" & aww im so so happy to be back in the lovely BC land

Xbox 360 Laptop more laptop-y than ever

But as with my George-y and Georgely examples, these are not standard words. Similarly, sunny, scholarly, and lengthy are commonplace, while sunly, scholary, and lengthly are whimsical, poetic, or perhaps just mistaken. Given the default meanings of the -ly and -y suffixes, this is not entirely arbitrary; but there's a bit of a random factor here.

How common is lengthly? There are quite a few examples out there, including some in news sources and books. And some of these seem unlikely to be simple typos, like those in the 12th annual report of the Council on Environmental Quality, which tells us that "The application and approval process is lengthly", and answers the question "When is a lengthly EA appropriate?" with the answer that "Agencies should avoid preparing lengthly EAs except in unusual cases … In most cases, however, a lengthly EA indicates that an EIS is necessary."

There might be alternative universes in which lengthly is ordinary English, and lengthy is whimsical, poetic, or mistaken. But this is not one of them.


  1. jfruh said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    But … what does "lengthly" mean? Is it identical to "lengthy", or "lengthily," or something else?

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    @ jfruh: the first 100 Google hits on 'lengthly' do not suggest any difference in meaning between 'lengthly' and 'lengthy'. We read of a lengthly absence, a lengthly spell on the sidelines, a lengthly review of a movie, a lengthly speech, a lengthly explanation, lengthly talks, etc. My father impressed on me half a century ago that there are no two words in the English language with identical meanings, but I can't see any difference in meaning here. I suspect my father might have sought to wriggle out of it by arguing that 'lengthy' and 'lengthly' are one word with two realisations.

  3. GeorgeW said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    I would have guessed a adverbial meaning like, 'she spoke lengthly on the topic today.'

  4. Kevin said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

    So I was curious about the different word formation processes… Looking at the Wiktionary pages for -ly and -y, it sounds like there's a distinction going back to proto-Germanic (-līkaz vs. -īgaz, respectively). The latter is preserved in most modern Germanic languages as -ig, and seems to function just to transform nouns into adjectives. But -līkaz (probably from the same root as English "lich", which meant a corpse or body) is preserved as -lig/-lich/-lik, and is glossed as -like (e.g. childlike).

    I think it's clear that there's been a lot of conflation between the two in English, to the point where the original distinction isn't really relevant anymore. Maybe some of the confusion has a phonological origin – I can't think of any examples of using -y with a word ending in a vowel, and I suspect that because of the existing -ly words, /l/ was chosen for epenthesis.

  5. Sybil said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    At first I assumed that "lengthly" was an alternate for "lengthily" = "at length" chez moi. But since no one else seems to have had that reaction (yet) I'm wondering if "lengthily" is dying out except for rare outcroppings like me. (George W suggests an adverbial meaning but does not mention that one exists, unless I read him wrong.)

    [(myl) Adverbs made by adding -ly to adjectives are of course common, and the particular word lengthily, derived from the adjective lengthy, certainly remains in use. But the reader asked about the possible adjective form lengthly, so discussion of possibly related adverbs doesn't seem relevant.]

  6. Jake Nelson said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

    I'm reminded of the (in my experience, anyway) far more common "heighth", by analogy with width and length. I've known people who steadfastly claim "heighth" is "obviously" correct, and "height" is "obviously" wrong…

  7. Mark Mandel said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    @Kevin: "I can't think of any examples of using -y with a word ending in a vowel, and I suspect that because of the existing -ly words, /l/ was chosen for epenthesis."

    Lexical examples. But I would accept, e.g., "soda-y" but not "soda-ly": I don't find adjectivalizing "-ly" productive.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 16, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    My reaction, before MYL and Eric P. Smith told us the answer, was "lengthwise" or "in a way that pertains to length".

    From a much smaller search than Eric P. Smith did, widthly seems to be mostly a non-native-speaker error for widely, though I did find widthly impaired as a jocular synonym for fat (in regard to dogs).

    Depthly seems to be another non-native-speaker error. I found a couple of native-speaker uses in in-depthly, one being "Also, why hadn't you read the thread in-depthly before Ranmaru asked you to?" here. If I may speculate, first we had the adverbial phrase in depth, then people made that an adjective phrase as in in-depth analysis, and then a few people made that adjective back into an adverb by adding -ly.

    Heightly is a place name and surname, though I found a few instances of heightly challenged and one of heightly gifted. Heighthly barely exists, but highthly seems to be the same as highly, sometimes used by native speakers. Again there's also highthly challenged.

  9. AntC said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    @myl and lengthily
    The first few Google hits for lengthily are indeed adverbs (with gloss 'at length'). But you don't get far down the list before it appears as an adjective: "…pending a lengthily court battle", "Any lengthily illness …".

  10. Craig Russell said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 12:48 am


    Is what you posted the entire text of CL's question? Because it is not clear to me from the quote what CL uses 'lengthly' to mean. S/he doesn't call it an adjective, doesn't explicitly say that it is an alternative to 'lengthy', and doesn't give any example sentences of its use. My first thought after reading the question (for whatever reason) was that "lengthly" was an adverb with the same meaning as "lengthwise" (e.g. "The table isn't too tall to go in that space, but you'll have a problem getting it to fit lengthly.")

    Since you have found examples of lengthly used as a synonym of lengthy it seems reasonable to suppose that is what CL meant. But are you sure it is?

  11. hector said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    "I might also say, with a slightly different meaning, "That was a very George-ly thing to do"."

    — and that slightly different meaning would be what, exactly?

  12. Sid Smith said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    @ Craig Russell

    Yes, I felt right away that there's an adverbial tone to the -ly ending. Using the quoted example, "George-y" seems to refer to a static something (dress, haircut, smell of a house) whereas "George-ly" feels more like a description of how something is done.

    "George-ily" would, of course, be even more adverbiallyllylly.

  13. Barrie England said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 2:18 am

    OED has this 1979 citation from the ‘Washington Post’: ‘[He] does not go in for lengthly expostulations . . .’

  14. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 3:09 am

    What is your frikkin’ e-mail address? I was trying to send you a question!

  15. maidhc said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 3:43 am

    To me "lengthy" is a ten-dollar way to say "long". But we have "lengthily" (it's hard to say, though) but "longly" is uncommon. Whereas "shortly" is just fine.

    I have a friend named Deb. If I wanted to say that another person did something in a manner similar to her, I couldn't say she did it in a Deb-y way, because it sounds like Debbie. I would have to say Deb-like. But if I were talking to Deb, I could say "That was very Debly done" in praise of her skills. Somehow it sounds more apt than when applied to a third person.

    Jake Nelson: I remember reading that at one time length, width and heighth were used in one part of Britain and lengt, widt and height in the other. North and south, but I don't remember which was which. I would guess the one without the h was the northern one.

    When English became more standardized, the standard version became two of one and one of the other.

    There are other structural irregularities in English caused by mixing northern and southern dialect forms, although I can't think of examples offhand. The northern dialect has a Scandinavian influence because that was once the Danelaw, settled by Vikings. Somewhere I have a book on the subject…

  16. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 3:44 am

    fwiw, I thought lengthly was an obsolete form, not a misspelled form. Just a spelling and pronunciation that hasn't been as popular in the last couple of centuries, that's all. Also, evidently my spell-checker (ispell on UNIX) thinks it isn't misspelled.

  17. Nightstallion said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 4:29 am

    @Kevin: "Looking at the Wiktionary pages for -ly and -y, it sounds like there's a distinction going back to proto-Germanic (-līkaz vs. -īgaz, respectively). The latter is preserved in most modern Germanic languages as -ig, and seems to function just to transform nouns into adjectives. But -līkaz (probably from the same root as English "lich", which meant a corpse or body) is preserved as -lig/-lich/-lik, and is glossed as -like (e.g. childlike)."

    At least German also has retained -līkaz as -lich (königlich, kürzlich, neulich, …).

  18. pj said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 7:03 am

    I was going to say,
    Pace myl, it would seem relevant (not strictly to CL's questions as phrased, but to understanding what's going on in their idiolect and that of other 'misspellers') to enquire whether they have the regularly-formed adverb 'lengthlily' from 'lengthly', or whether 'lengthily' is as new to them as 'lengthy' is.

    However, I've just realised that, as Craig Russell says, the lack of full explanation of CL's usage has led me to make the possibly wrong assumption that CL thought 'the word was' lengthly and has only just realised that 'it' should be spelled (and pronounced) lengthy. But maybe 'lengthy' is not new to them and they were using, or understanding, the two words differently?

    (I've never consciously come across 'lengthly' before but already it's looking fairly un-weird to me as a substitute for 'lengthy'.)

  19. Trimegistus said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 8:52 am

    "Lengthly" sounds like it should mean "in a manner concerned with qualities or measurements of length." As in someone lecturing about rulers would speak lengthly. Or if you were describing something you would say "widthly, it's sixteen feet; lengthly, twenty."

    We already have lengthily, lengthwise, lengthly, length, and long. I don't think lengthly makes the cut.

  20. Paulus said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    Incidently, in 19th century (?) Britain "lengthy" was ridiculed and banned as an ugly Americanism – and a particularly bad offense at that.

    [(myl) Indeed. This is a good example of a peeve that today's peevers have generally forgotten. MWDEU's discussion is (as usual) excellent:


  21. Mike P said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    There is also "nerdy" and "nerdly" with two distinct meanings. Do "lengthy" and "lengthly" follow the same pattern semantically? Hard to tell.

  22. Rod Johnson said,

    June 17, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    Apologies if this has been noted above, but am I right in thinking that lengthy doesn't really have the spatial use that long does? All the MWDEU examples above involve time, either literally or in a transferred sense (a lengthy form takes a long time to fill out). So for me a lengthy book is fine, but a lengthy countertop or a lengthy scarf is at least weird sounding.

    This strikes me as somewhat like the alleged farther/further distinction–a doublet that speakers tend to want to differentiate semantically, even if they have to invent a distinction.

    [(myl) In COCA, the top ten following collocates for lengthy are process, list, discussion, period, interview, negotiations, article, discussions, interviews, periods. The top ten following collocates for long are as, time, ago, enough, before, way, been, run, after, island.

    If we limit the long collocates to nouns, and eliminate "Long Island", the list becomes time, way, run, term, history, hours, period, list, hair.

    This suggests that there's something right about your intuition. Certainly "lengthy hair" strikes me as weird, despite the fact that it's Out There.]

  23. un malpaso said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Interesting. I have never, in my 41 years, heard or used "lengthly." I didn't even know it was a possible variant, so it doesn't peeve me at all. Maybe I have been hearing it all my life and just never noticed it… or maybe I live in a strange linguistic bubble in Atlanta, Georgia. I may have unconsciously read or encountered it, of course.

    I think that if I did hear it, I would take it to mean an introductory adverb meaning "as for length…" just like @Trimegistus mentioned above.

  24. Jason L. said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    For me and at least one friend, -ly as an adjectivalizing suffix is productive without rehearsal, more-or-less meaning "in a manner befitting".

    Eating ice cream out of the tub would be unjamesly. = It would not befit James (or anyone else who wishes to share his qualities) to eat ice cream out of the tub.

    "Unjamesly" is a bit different from "unjameslike", as the latter means the neutral "unusual for James", while the former can shade into "not proper for James; beneath James".

  25. Mr Punch said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    Never heard "lengthly." I don't think -y and -ly are quite equivalent in any case — -y means "resembling," -ly means "characteristic of." A robot that appeared to be in armor might be called knighty, but unless it behaved chivalrously it wouldn't be knightly.

  26. KWillets said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    In (relativistic) geometry, the terms spacelike and timelike describe separations of events by either spatial or temporal distance, and my first thought was that "lengthly" would describe the former (I never liked "spacelike").

    However a lengthly illness would have less temporal than spatial extent.

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