(Not) hardly working

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From David DenisonHard working ISA [contrasted with] not hardly working ISA:

David's comment:

This is an ad for an ISA (Individual Savings Account – tax-free for UK taxpayers), pushing the advertiser's Stocks & Shares offering against some other ISA that (presumably) merely pays interest. For me, not and hardly are alternatives before an -ing and incompatible with each other in the sense intended ('hardly at all'), though it's easy enough to find other web examples like it, as well as examples in COCA etc. where not hardly means 'hardly at all'.

In my experience, "not hardly" is a common vernacular emphatic double negation, with an idiomatic meaning more like "absolutely not" than "hardly at all". Some examples from books and current news sources:

[link] Are self-driving cars ready for prime time? Not hardly; not hardly.
[link] The war is over … not hardly
[link] Now that the Retrievers accomplished the unthinkable — defeating No. 1 seed Virginia in Charlotte on Friday in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament — who would argue their worth is spent? No one. Not hardly.
[link] That's not hardly going to happen with these greedy people.
[link] Not Hardly Trying
[link] Those are the days I'm not hardly trying to show grace.

In my own usage, I think that the common cases would be "not hardly" as an emphatic negative answer, and "not hardly gonna happen" to express skepticism about a possible future.

Perhaps this idiom is more common in the U.S. than in the U.K. — or at least has diffused into a wider register of usage.

Update — as various commenters point out, the ad surely should be parsed as "X not Y", where X is "hard working ISA" and Y is "hardly working ISA".

But it remains true that "not hardly" is an idiomatic vernacular emphatic double negation, so Prof. Denison's interpretation makes sense, with a disjunction between "hard working ISA" and "not hardly working ISA" implied by simple graphical juxtaposition. I certainly had no trouble seeing the ad that way.



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

    I used to work with an editor, a total prescriptivist stickler in writing, who said "not hardly" and all the associated contractions such as "couldn't hardly". She didn't use any other negative concord in speech, though. I feel that I've encountered other people with the same habit.

    On the other hand, the version of this joke I've usually heard even from non-standard speakers is "Working hard—or hardly working."

  2. Zeppelin said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:19 pm

    Isn't this just a riff on "working hard, or hardly working"? They're saying "our ISA is a hard-working one, not one that hardly works at all." It's all one sentence, they're not comparing a "hard-working ISA" with a "not-hardly-working ISA".

    Or maybe the point is just going completely over my head.

  3. Roberta Davies said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    That's how I read it — referring the old chestnut "working hard or hardly working".

    I was more puzzled about the zebra, but it turns out that's the Investec mascot. They have a zebra logo and it's in all their communications.

  4. David Denison said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

    The graphics led me to assume a contrast between the whole phrases on left and right, but I think Zeppelin's reading is at least as likely in a British context. And would a financial institution risk double negation?

  5. Phillip Minden said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 5:39 pm

    "hard working ISA", not "hardly working ISA"
    Fascinating that this can even be misunderstood.

  6. AntC said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

    Fascinating that this can even be misunderstood.

    The stock (sorry) phrase/chestnut has or for the contrast, not not, which is the idiom myl talked about.

    For me (Br.E. up to 25 years ago and very familiar with the chestnut), using not just isn't working (sorry again).

    If there were or in place of not, that would show the contrast — especially as they're separated by the zebra looking haughtily at the opposition. (Or is it? Always difficult to tell what a zebra's facial expression is.)

  7. Bartleby said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 6:50 pm

    From Big Jake with John Wayne:
    Richard Boone, to John Wayne: Who are you?
    John Wayne: Jacob McCandles.
    Richard Boone: I thought you was dead.
    John Wayne: Not hardly.

  8. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 6:50 pm

    I think if what's meant is hard-working-ISA, not hardly-working-ISA, it was badly formatted, because, the way it's set visually, it definitely looks like it's contrasting "hard working ISA" with "not hardly working ISA", rather than contrasting "hard working ISA" with "hardly working ISA" and adding an indication that one wants the former, not the latter.

  9. Ethan said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 7:15 pm

    I'm a victim of reverse nerdview. I was doubly thrown off by the image here because (1) ISA to me is a computer architecture rather than anything to do with banking and (2) the zebra in the middle of the layout closely mimics the front cover layout of the O'Reilly series of books on computer topics: E.g. O'Reilly zebra cover. It would be entirely plausible for O'Reilly to have a book on good/bad ISA designs.

  10. Ethan said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

    broken link. Zebra cover is here.

  11. Martha said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 9:17 pm

    I feel like a couple of articles and hyphens would solve the problem. "A hard-working ISA, not a hardly-working ISA." (Or even no hyphens, if you don't like the aesthetics, I guess.)

  12. dainichi said,

    April 5, 2018 @ 10:39 pm

    > "hard working ISA", not "hardly working ISA"

    The lack of quotes is forgivable, but the lack of a comma is not.

  13. Ray said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 5:02 am

    the problem is that the graphic orange vs white behaves too strongly as a separation of 2 entities in 2 spaces, rather than as a mere comma in a continuous statement. so, in this graphic either-or space, "or" replacing "not" would have been more clear and elegant. another solution in this graphic space would be to begin the statement with an action verb, like "Try hard working ISA… not hardly working ISA

    they could also have said "move" or "put" your £10,000 instead of "invest" because in the next sentence they warn that investment puts capital at risk

    finally, I'd drop the 's on Click & Invest (but would keep it if it were Click&Invests)

    overall, I'd give this ad a C++ (which I feel Ethan would appreciate)

  14. Terror Incognita said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 5:41 am

    BrE speaker here in total agreement with Phillip Minden et al. And as dainichi says, the lack of a comma makes it slightly unclear.

    The phrase 'not hardly working' to mean 'not working at all' described in the article is almost completely alien to me. Is it an extension of 'not even hardly working' as in 'not even slightly correct' or somesuch? I've certainly not knowingly heard it before.

  15. richardelguru said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 5:44 am

    And they missed a really nice chiasmus not using
    "ISA working hard / hardly working ISA"

  16. TIC said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 7:09 am

    For me (an AmE speaker familiar with both the expression "Working hard or hardly working?" and the idiomatic phrasing "not hardly") the ad, uh, "worked" just as intended…The graphic design clearly indicated a contrast (without the need for a comma, a "vs.", etc.)… And the "not" before "hardly working", as previously suggested, indicated something less than "barely working"… So, although I'm clearly both literally and figuratively far from the intended audience, I instantly recognized this as an ad that's, uh, "of a different stripe"!…

  17. Yuval said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 9:55 am

    Not a native speaker, but I've always interpreted this usage as suggested by Terror Incognita, i.e. elided not even hardly, i.e. 'not in the slightest'.

  18. Peter said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 11:23 am

    Not sure why, but this formulation reminds me about some older relatives of my Dad's, who apparently used to say the farm got "quite a little bit of rain." Neither me or my dad were ever able to figure out if that meant a lot of rain or a little.

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 3:11 pm

    Terror Incognita: For those of us who are familiar with "not hardly", the ad with the lack of both a comma and "a"s (as Martha said) offered potential for misunderstanding.

    I believe you British people sometimes say "hardly" to mean "not at all". Some Americans add a non-standard "not" to "hardly" in all senses, including that one. So if you can say "I couldn't hardly see it," you can answer "I thought you was dead" with "Not hardly."

    As I implied before, though, in jokes on "hard-working" and "hardly working", I don't expect a redundant "not". (Sometimes things that I don't expect happen anyway.)

  20. peterv said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

    BrE playground riddle of the 1960s:

    Why did the chicken walk softly across the road?

    Because it couldn't walk hardly.

  21. empty said,

    April 6, 2018 @ 8:59 pm

    I failed to understand it at first, because of (a) the formatting issue that Ellen mentions and (b) the red herring of "not hardly".

  22. Xtifr said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    Another AmE speaker here, and like TIC, I found this perfectly clear. I had to stop and take a second look to see where the perceived problem might be.

    There's one thing, other than cross-pond variances in the use of 'hardly", which might be a factor: the British press seems to use punctuation in headlines a lot more than the American press does. Especially quotes. (I sometimes find the way the British press uses quote marks in headlines to be bizarre and confusing.) So the absence of any clarifying quotes and commas didn't affect my understanding at all.

  23. Ellen Kozisek said,

    April 7, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

    Since some folks are making this out to be a BE vs. AE thing, I would like to add, I'm American. And it's not at all clear to me that it's meant to refer to the "working hard, or hardly working" question. Which I do hear from time to time.

  24. BZ said,

    April 9, 2018 @ 10:54 am

    For me "not hardly" meaning "definitely not" is only idiomatic by itself. However reading "not hardly working ISA" results in something incomprehensible. If you say it with the right inflection you can get the intended meaning, but somehow it's confusing in print.

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