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I am having a problem trying to fully understand the use of barely and hardly in the following sentences.

There were barely any women at the party.

There were hardly any women at the party.

There were scarcely any women at the party.

I understand that "scarcely" and "hardly" can be used interchangeably here. However, I'm not sure about barely.

Are those sentences correct? Let's say there was a party with 20 men and only 2 women. I generally would use hardly as the dictionary says it is often used with the word "any". I was asked a question if the word "barely" would be suitable in this context and I couldn't find a clear explanation.

I know the meaning of all those words but couldn't find an example that would compare their use in this particular context.

Can you please advise? Thank you! :)

Kris

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All the word choices in this instance can be used. The usage "hardly" and "barely" are more common than "scarcely", as you can see from this Google Ngram Viewer result.

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"Hardly any" means that there were very few. As you are referring to the number of women in comparison to the number of men, it could be considered subjective, ie it may mean that the number is comparatively few.

"Barely any" means that if there were any fewer, there would be none at all.

"Scarcely any" doesn't sound right to me in this context. I accept the dictionary definition is synonymous with the above, but as a native British English speaker, I'm more used to this being used to describe situations, not a single count at an isolated event.

This ngram compares the historic use of all three. It shows that that 'scarcely any' was once the most frequently used of your three choices by a huge margin - but it has dramatically fallen in use over the last century and is used far less than "hardly any". If you are looking for the most idiomatic, that would be your best choice.

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  • Thanks a lot for your answer. As for the scarcely, Macmillan gives an example of such a sentence: There was scarcely any traffic. It seems similar to my sentences. As for hardly and barely, I understand that in reality, the number of women could have been the same, it's just the perspective we apply to this sentence. Grammatically both are correct, right? Sep 24 '20 at 11:43
  • I would dispute what Astralbee says about scarcely, and agree that scarcely any and hardly any are interchangeable. Sep 24 '20 at 12:00
  • @KrzysztofF. I'll admit this is my feeling on the matter, as a native British English speaker. It doesn't sound right to me. Take a look at this ngram: it shows that that 'scarcely any' was once the most frequently used of your three choices by a huge margin - but it has dramatically fallen from use in the last century. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Astralbee
    Sep 24 '20 at 12:34

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