October 18, 2007

Ask Language Log: Rotely

Jasprizza Will writes:

A quick question -- is "rotely" a real word? I used it in a report the other day and was corrected and told it wasn't in the dictionary. True enough it isn't -- neither Websters or Oxford. It does get approximately 12,000 Googits and it sounds unexceptionable to me, but is it simply a widespread error or has it reached acceptance?

Rotely is used several times a week in U.S. newspapers. Thus Michele Parente in a restaurant review in the San Diego Union-Tribune of 10/11/2007:

No matter that these dishes must have been made thousands of times before; instead of rotely turning them out, Sala Thai has nailed how to do them right every time.

And Jim Farber in a concert review in the New York Daily News of 10/11/2007:

There were some duds: Howard Jones rotely tinkled out "Tiny Dancer." and the Pernice Brothers had no point of view on "Country Comforts."

Rotely also makes it past the copy editors at the New York Times, at least from time to time; thus Adam Nagourney, "Iowans Check for Dirt Under Giuliani's Nails", 8/15/2007:

Mr. Giuliani signed autographs like a machine, a reminder of just how famous he is. He traveled with what appeared to be an endless inventory of Sharpies, rotely affixing his name to campaign leaflets, books, T-shirts, signs and menus, even when no one was asking.

We can also see rotely used from time to time in scholarly writing. Thus H. Douglas Brown, "Cognitive Pruning and Second Language Acquisition", The Modern Language Journal 56(4): 218-222, 1972.

... retention of material rotely learned is extremely inefficient since forgetting is easily induced by interference ...

Or Helen Thompson, "Review of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting", Eighteenth Century Fiction 18(3): 398-402, 2006:

But a woman's lively understanding of her "own duty" does significantly encroach upon the "Authority" that would enforce rotely feminized "conformity" ...

And in general, the fact that a rare but regularly-derived word isn't in the dictionaries is not a very strong argument. The English suffix -ly is routinely used to make adverbs out of adjectives, and not every creation of that type is listed, or needs to be listed. A minute of searching finds a list of -ly forms that have been used in print by good writers, but don't make the OED: relaxingly, bossily, diabetically, maturationally, etc.

So is it time to start passing out copies of Arnold Zwicky's declaration of lexical independence, "Not a word!" (11/27/2004)?

Perhaps not yet.

The problem is that the regular and sanctioned used of -ly is to make adverbs out of adjectives -- but rote is a noun, at least traditionally. The OED gives us a set of obsolete nominal senses:

1. a. Custom, habit, practice. Obs.
    b. Mechanical practice or performance; regular procedure; mere routine. Obs. (Cf. sense 2.)
    c. A rigmarole. Obs. rare.

with citations from 1315 to 1678. The only modern uses that the OED gives are in the phrase by rote:

2. by rote, in a mechanical manner, by routine, esp. by the mere exercise of memory without proper understanding of, or reflection upon, the matter in question; also, with precision, by heart. a. With say, sing, play, etc.
    b. With know, get, learn, etc.

and a set of attributive uses, either of rote itself or of the phrase by rote:

3. attrib., as rote knowledge, -learning, -lesson, -work; rote-learned, -like, adjs.; by-rote babble, lesson; rote learning, also spec. in Psychol., the learning by rote of meaningless material designed to be free of associations, as a technique in the study of learning.

Some people have (plausibly) interpreted the common attributive uses (such as rote knowledge, rote learning) to mean that rote is an adjective. And if it is, then rotely as an adverb meaning "by rote" is indeed unexceptionable.

But if rote is still a noun (as it seems to be in my personal and subjective grammar), then rotely would have to be the other -ly suffix, which is added to nouns to form adjectives: kingly, masterly, scholarly, manly, womanly. I should really should say "was added to nouns", because this engine of derivation runs fitfully at best in modern English. Forms like bookly and floorly can be coined, but half as jokes, as in these examples from the web:

That word is Delight; and this is what I wish for you as readers--Delight, in all of its bookly incarnations.

I'm sure some of you may be grossed out by my lack of floorly cleanliness, but if it doesn't look bad, it doesn't bother me.

So if Jasprizza used rotely as an adverb, she was making a correct deduction from a historically uncertain premise. If she used rotely as an adjective, then she was making a whimsical deduction from an established (though obscure) premise.

Either way, there are arguments on both sides. In such cases, absent strong motivation for using the uncertain form, a conservative choice might be wiser, at least in formal contexts. The rotely quotes above could all have been rephrased with by rote, perhaps with some other re-ordering:

...instead of rotely turning them out, Sala Thai has nailed how to do them right every time.
...instead of turning them out by rote, Sala Thai has nailed how to do them right every time

Or some other word like mechanically might have been used.

... an endless inventory of Sharpies, rotely affixing his name to campaign leaflets, books, T-shirts, signs and menus...
... an endless inventory of Sharpies, mechanically affixing his name to campaign leaflets, books, T-shirts, signs and menus...

For those who want to avoid giving offense, such alternatives might be better choices. Thus does conscience make cowards of us all.

[Update -- Joe Ruby observes:

The correct word would seem to be rotelily. "He played the piece by rote." "It was a rotely performance." "He rotelily played the piece." :-)

I may have written you about this before -- if so, forgive me -- but 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."


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 18, 2007 08:15 AM