Does "scarcely" imply it is less than or more than when used with a quantity?

I have checked a few threads on the internet.

1) He is scarcely four feet tall.


2) Scarcely twenty years passed before our imaginations were duly stretched.


3) " As the seventeenth century dawned, scarcely a hundred years after Columbus’s momentous landfall, the face of much of the New World had already been profoundly transformed. European crops and livestock had begun to alter the very landscape, touching off an ecological revolution that would reverberate for centuries to come."


In all of the above three examples, native speakers take "scarcely" to mean " a little more than".

This is confusing to me.

Scarcely: only just; almost not ( Oxford Learner's Dictionaries)

How would I understand the meaning of "scarcely" when used with a quantity?


2 Answers 2


Merriam-Webster lists four different senses of scarcely:

1 a : by a narrow margin : only just
// had scarcely rung the bell when the door flew open
— Agnes S. Turnbull
1 b : almost not
could scarcely see for the fog
2 a : certainly not
// could scarcely interfere
2 b : probably not
// there could scarcely have been found a leader better equipped
— V. L. Parrington

In each of your sentences, it's the first sense that the most applicable. Replace scarcely with only just.

Note that in the almost not sense that you mention (but which doesn't apply to your sentences), you can think of it as just barely enough. If I can almost not see, it means that I still can see—but if conditions change in any negative way, I won't be able to anymore. (It's the danger of not seeing that's being emphasized—while still expressing that it hasn't reached that point yet.)

  • Thanks for your clarification of "almost not". This really helps. Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 21:46
  • scarcely X means in your examples at least X, perhaps a tiny amount more, but it also has the implication that X is to be considered small.

  • He is scarcely four feet tall = no more than four feet tall

  • Scarcely twenty years passed before = it only took twenty years ...
  • scarcely a hundred years after = it only took 100 years for the effects to take place

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