I was recommended to post this question here, instead of on English Language & Usage. In summary, I understand "barely" to mean "equal to, or more than, but not less than" when used with a quantity, but I think this is inconsistent with the definition "certainly not more than" as specified in the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary 7th edition. This is the full definition of "barely" from the Dictionary.

Copy of definition of barely

I believe I understand the first and second definition: "barely" implies that something did happen, although it was very close that it didn't. As is also explained here https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/148031/what-does-barely-imply.

However, I am having trouble understanding the third definition, describing a quantity. Using the first example sentence and substituting in the provided words from the third definition, changes how I understand the meaning of the sentence.

To me, stating that

Just 50% of the population voted.

is similar to the definition in 1 and 2 and means the population percentage hit 50%, and maybe trickled over a tiny bit, but it is definitely not less than 50% (don't confuse this usage of just with how it can be used as a synonym for only).

Meanwhile, I interpret

Certainly not more than 50% of the population voted.

as if 50% or less (but probably close to 50%) of the population voted, but definitely not more than 50%.

Combining these two interpretations creates a third definition of "barely", as a synonym to "precisely", meaning no less and no more than 50.000...% of the population voted. I realize this interpretation could also be derived from "just" alone. Maybe this could also be related to the root "bare", as it would be a "naked" 50%, nothing more and nothing less?

Which, if any, of these interpretations is more accurate to how "barely" should be used with a quantity? Does this correct definition reflect the everyday use of "barely", or is it used less strictly to mean "around" or "about" a quantity?

  • 1
    A very quick and rough translation for barely would be "almost not". Barely 50% would be "yeah, we can say it's 50% (or a little above 50), but it almost didn't make it there". (Sorry for posting this as a comment. I haven't read the whole question, though.) Jun 16, 2016 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


Bare, the root of barely, means "without any(thing) extraneous…." Likewise barely conveys the same meaning: "just that much up to a very little more or less." That is, meeting the lowest requirement for a classification, with a little wiggle room.

The dictionary listed meaning that say the same things.

1. Barely audible. Humans hear -8db and the sound was at -7.8db. Just within the range.
2. Barely acknowledged. There was acknowledgement, but nothing extra; no chit-chat.
3. Barely twenty years. Just became 20, or the birthday is within a month. Again, very little else.
4. Barely started to speak when…. I wasn't speaking, then I began and shortly thereafter this event happened.

Barely does not imply preciseness.

That third definition (to me) is slightly misleading: "just; certainly not more than a particular amount" doesn't actually state that "a particular amount" is the number quoted:

The presidential nominee barely got the 50.1% of votes required

...when s/he got 50.2%. Would 51% still qualify for 'barely'? Maybe. 60%? Nope.

  • 1
    I'd even go further: 'barely' (to me) implies "...and lucky to have done it!" - although that's drawing a bit of a long bow Jun 16, 2016 at 0:03

Just 50% of the population voted.

It really depends on the context. To me, this implies that exactly 50% (maybe a little rounding, there is often rounding when talking about voting percentages) voted but you expected more people to vote. However, I can imagine that to others, or depending on the context, just implies that you expected less people to vote. In other words, the word just does not really imply any sense of "no more than" or "no less than". Instead, it has an implication regarding expectation in this example.

Barely 50% of the population voted.

This might actually be a bad example. To me, barely does not mean certainly not more than in this example. To me, it means that 50% of the people voted, but the percentage exceed 50% by a very small amount. Maybe 50.0001% voted.

But it is possible to imagine something like a news anchor reporting the news. A graphic reads "49.9% go out to vote" while the news anchor say

Barely 50% of the population voted.

So with rounding, 49.9% can be consider barely 50%.

Here is an example barely means certainly not more than. A girl is trying on a tank top, and it is slightly loose around her breasts. She remarks

I barely fill out this top.

In other words, her breast size is certainly not more than the breast size of the top.


Barely implies that there is a categorization and that something, while close to the borderline, still fits within this categorization.

John barely passed the class.

Perhaps John needed a score of at least 70% to pass the class and he got a final score of 72%.

Sue barely made it to work on time.

Perhaps Sue starts work at 8:30 and arrived at work at 8:29.

Barely 50% of the population voted.

There is an implication that the categorization is at least 50%, which means the actual number could be something like 52%.

Google examples: fee.org/articles/barely-half-of-student-loans-are-being-repaid/ http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/high_school_and_beyond/2016/06/only_half_of_colleges_study_ACT_SAT_as_predictors_of_success.html

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