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Can one comfortably say in English "a lowly profitable company"?

My research indicates that there are almost no instances of this usage. My guess is that, maybe, it is awkward to combine "lowly" with "profitable", because the concepts are antagonistic.

Native speakers: Does the expression seem perfectly fine to you?

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  • 5
    Only people or their circumstances can be lowly.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1, 2023 at 15:07
  • 11
    What do you mean? A company which is lowly (unimportant, not grand) but profitable, or a company that makes a small profit, or that makes almost no profit?
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1, 2023 at 16:04
  • 2
    @DJMcMayhem, I don't think that "unprofitable" is the intent here. "Barely profitable" perhaps, but certainly making some profit. "Unprofitable" means loss-making, or (at best) break-even. Feb 2, 2023 at 9:05
  • 1
    keep it simple: "low-profit company" perfectly fine, even if it may not be 100% grammatically correct, no native english speaker will even think twice about it.
    – ldog
    Feb 2, 2023 at 17:52
  • 1
    the answer is simply no. don't confuse the OP.
    – Fattie
    Feb 3, 2023 at 15:41

5 Answers 5

38

There's actually a grammatical problem here. I'm assuming you want to describe a company that has a low profit. Your intention is to link lowly and profitable to produce the idea that the company is making almost no profit at all.

The idea is perfectly fine. There's nothing wrong about referring to a word and then qualifying it with contrasting words. ("They had a chaotic plan." "It was an almost tasteless flavour.")

However, the word you have chosen, lowly, is a tricky English word. It looks like an adverb with the -ly ending, but it's actually an adjective with a fairly specific meaning. It means low born, humble, ordinary, as in these examples from Collins:

  • He was a man of lowly birth, unlike the princess.
  • He was just a lowly photographer.

So what words would be better? You could say:

  • a barely profitable company
  • a company that was only just profitable.
  • a company that made very little profit.
  • a minimally profitable company
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  • 5
    Did you check some dictionaries? A number of them do define it as an adverb as well, like dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster.
    – stangdon
    Feb 1, 2023 at 15:49
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    Learners would mostly be better off not knowing about adverbial lowly = in a low manner. It's a very uncommon usage, and I suspect most native speakers today would much prefer He speaks low and slow rather than He speaks lowly and slowly (even without the irrelevant alliteration! :) Feb 1, 2023 at 18:42
  • 4
    I don't know about "often". When I Google "lowly profitable", I only get about 10 hits actually using the phrase to mean "making low profits". Everything else is either this question, Stack Exchange pages with this question in the HNQ sidebar, or Stack Exchange scrapers. Feb 3, 2023 at 4:09
  • 1
    The Google Books Ngram Viewer also has literally zero occurences of "lowly profitable". Feb 3, 2023 at 4:11
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    @Trunk - your statement is completely wrong, or, I've misunderstand what you mean.
    – Fattie
    Feb 3, 2023 at 15:45
9

If you are trying to talk about a company that does not make a lot of profit, I would say a

marginally profitable company

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  • This is a nice alternative but not what OP asked for. They asked (twice) if a phrase was something a native speaker might use.
    – Colm
    Feb 3, 2023 at 10:51
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    "Answers" like this are incredibly unhelpful on ELL. Please delete it. The norm on this site is to use comments, for "alternate suggestions regarding something mentioned on the page"
    – Fattie
    Feb 3, 2023 at 15:46
7

The word "lowly" isn't typically used as an adverb from the adjective "low"; it's most often used as an adjective to describe something low in status or importance.

If you mean that the company doesn't make a profit, you would call it an unprofitable company. If it makes only a small profit, you would call it a low-margin company.

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    I see that Merriam-Webster says that lowly does mean "in a low position, manner, or degree", but I feel like it's so rarely used that way that it's better avoided.
    – stangdon
    Feb 1, 2023 at 14:47
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    You sometimes see "lowly" used of worms, snakes, and other animals that go along the ground (I suspect this goes back to some religious text), but that's probably the only time it would be used to mean low in position or degree (and even then it probably has some sense that the worm is lowly in both status and physical position).
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1, 2023 at 16:06
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    low-margin doesn't necessarily mean it makes only a small profit. A company can make a large profit it has a low margin but high revenue.
    – bdsl
    Feb 2, 2023 at 13:08
  • @bdsl While margin is not equal to total profits, it takes very high volume for a low-margin product to produce high profits, so it's unusual. The implication is usually clear.
    – Barmar
    Feb 2, 2023 at 15:33
  • Fair enough. My thought was companies that deal with things like fast moving consumer goods are likely to have low margins but may have high profits.
    – bdsl
    Feb 2, 2023 at 17:38
-2

That's fine to say, if that's what you mean. In this case "lowly" wins, meaning that being profitable isn't good enough. You could say Sam Walmart wanted to dominate retail, and wouldn't settle for running a lowly profitable company.

In a similar way, you might say a actor is merely pretty -- since most actors are much more than pretty. Or Stan might be the lowly millionaire at a yacht party, since everyone else is a billionaire.

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    This implies that Sam Walton ran something that wasn't a profitable company. I don't know what that would be, but it must be something that makes all profitable companies look "lowly". On the other hand a millionaire among billionaires would be "lowly", so that example works.
    – David K
    Feb 2, 2023 at 3:54
  • @DavidK Yes! Walmart makes other profitable companies look lowly, since it's super-mega profitable. We think of mildly good words like "profitable" or "pretty" or "millionaire" in 2 ways. One is "X or better", but that's often the wrong way: Sam Walton was a millionaire? Daniel Craig is pretty? Tom Brady is an above average quarterback? We more often think of them as points, followed by better things and say "Amazon isn't some lowly profitable company -- it's a money-sucking behemoth". Feb 2, 2023 at 15:05
  • If you wanted to say the being profitable isn't good enough, then I think it would be better phrased as "Sam Walmart wanted to dominate retail, and wouldn't settle for merely running a profitable company."
    – Kevin
    Feb 2, 2023 at 15:28
  • I think the Amazon example may work (though perhaps not for everyone) as a kind of play on words. You might be able to do something similar with Walmart. The joke is that ordinarily the terms "profitable" and "unprofitable" divide companies into just two classes (although there are more specific terms that can subdivide companies further), but you are describing a company that is so extraordinarily successful that it cannot even fit in the class of profitable companies.
    – David K
    Feb 2, 2023 at 17:58
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    I think this answer has been unfairly dismissed: using 'lowly' like this would be appropriate to compare a company that was merely profitable to something like Amazon, thereby implying that Amazon also wields significant power. It is not enough to be merely profitable; you must also be the lord of a fiefdom.
    – Merus
    Feb 3, 2023 at 4:49
-3

Chambers Dictionary says that lowly is solely an adjective meaning small in stature or organisation. It also says that the adverb from low is lowlily.

Oxford Concise says lowly is both an adjective and adverb, the adverbial form having a derivative, lowlily. Lowly is connoted with a meaning of small in amount, e.g. the men were on lowly wages.

So Oxford Concise would therefore support the phrase as used by the OP while Chambers seems not to.

So much for dictionaries. In everyday usage the OP phrase - rightly or wrongly - is seen used in appropriate contexts like financial or economic reports.

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  • This is a great answer but I don't believe the final sentence. There may be some confusion. Do you have any examples?
    – Fattie
    Feb 3, 2023 at 15:50
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    @Fattie See edited-in link above.
    – Trunk
    Feb 3, 2023 at 16:39

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