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The words "seemingly" and "apparently" have a similar meaning.

  1. Something looks a certain way, and it really is so.
  2. Something looks a certain way, and is probably so.
  3. Something looks a certain way, but really is different.

To distinguish these cases, German has the words anscheinend (2) and scheinbar (3). Is there a similarly clear distinction in English? I had expected that the words seemingly and apparently carry this distinction, but according to Wiktionary, they don't.

  • seemingly lists apparently as a synonym.
  • apparently lists seemingly as a synonym, and in combination with yet can be used to express (3) above.

Merriam-Webster is of no help either:

  • seemingly explains nothing and only refers to seem.
  • seem has some usage examples, but they don't answer my question.
  • apparently is defined as seems apparent, which confuses me even more since doubling the uncertainty makes this definition even more unreliable.
  • apparent has several meanings, one of which is obvious, the other is defined based on appearing.
  • appearing is, once again, defined based on seem.

All this goes against the concept of a multi-layer dictionary and is not helpful for getting a clear meaning of the words. When I browsed throught the words at the Merriam-Webster site, I got the impression that they didn't even try to define the words properly, and this confused me even more.

This leaves me with the following questions:

  • What is the difference between apparently and seemingly?
  • Is this difference understood by everyone, or just by linguists and maybe laywers?
  • Which English words are closest to the meanings (2) and (3) at the top of this question?

2 Answers 2

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The Wiktionary definitions you pointed to are indeed not very helpful.

The definitions in Merriam-Webster do have some information that can help answer your question:

  • (Definition of apparently): it seems apparent — used to describe something that appears to be true based on what is known

  • (Definition of seemingly): outwardly or apparently — used to indicate how something appears or seems

The first part of both definitions is just a list of synonyms; and these two words are close enough that they can be considered synonyms of each other.

The second part elaborates on the usage of each word; there is a difference. From the definition of apparently one can learn that it is close to meaning (2) in your list; it indicates an appearance and near (but not absolute) certainty. Seemingly does not have this sense of near certainty and just conveys that there is some evidence that creates an impression, which may or may not be true. It does not exactly match any of your proposed meanings.

The adverb evidently somewhat matches your definition (1); it suggests both evidence (Something looks a certain way) and truth (and it really is so). For definition (3) a possible adverb is pretendendly.

The distinction between these words is subtle and many English speakers will use them (and some others) interchangeably, especially in informal or casual speech.

For English speakers it may be interesting to read more about the meaning of the German words in https://german.stackexchange.com/questions/3126/what-is-the-difference-between-scheinbar-and-anscheinend.

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Here are the definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary.

Meaning of seemingly in English

seemingly adverb UK /ˈsiː.mɪŋ.li/ US /ˈsiː.mɪŋ.li/

  1. appearing to be something, especially when this is not true:
    He remains confident and seemingly untroubled by his recent problems.

  2. according to the facts that you know:
    The factory closure is seemingly inevitable.
    Seemingly, she's gone to live with another man.

Meaning of apparently in English

apparently adverb UK /əˈpær.ənt.li/ US /əˈper.ənt.li/

  1. used to say you have read or been told something although you are not certain it is true:
    Apparently it's going to rain today.
    Apparently he's had enough of England and is going back to Australia.

  2. used when the real situation is different from what you thought it was:
    You know I told you Alice's party was on the 13th? Well I saw her last night and apparently it's on the 14th.
    She looks about ten, but apparently she's 14.
    I thought they were married but apparently not (= they are not married).

  3. used to say that something seems to be true, although it is not certain:
    An 80-year-old woman was badly hurt in what the police describe as an apparently motiveless attack (= an attack for no apparent reason).

To answer your questions:
1. I think that the definitions above do a pretty good job of explaining the various meanings. Note that both words have multiple meanings: the intended meaning is generally clear from the context. I would add that apparently generally has a higher probability of truth than seemingly
2. Educated native english speakers would have a clear intuitive idea of the differences, but might be hard pressed to give precise out-of-context definitions. Many less- educated native english speakers would have a general idea of the differences, but would occasionally make mistakes
3. I have re-worded your third sentence in two ways, to show the difference between seemingly and apparently in this kind of context.

Something looks a certain way, and is probably so
seemingly meaning 2 and apparently meaning 3 would both be OK.

Something looked a certain way, but you now know that it is different.
apparently meaning 2

Something looks a certain way, but you are pretty confident based on other information that it is different
seemingly meaning 1

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  • Apparently the Cambridge Dictionary is much more careful about wording and explanations than Merriam-Webster. I'll scratch the latter from my list of reliable references. Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 10:39
  • @RolandIllig, don't scratch it, just move it down the list. I use it to look for differences between American and British english.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 7:33

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