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“Hardly”, “hardly ever”, and “hardly even” seem to mean different things and I can hardly distinguish between them.

There's this page, listing 2 very similar meanings for hardly, and which seems to indicate here that it composes “normally” with ever (i.e. hardly + ever = almost + n+ever), but doesn't mention even.

Also, I can't help but believe there should be a way to understand it as in a hard way (hard-ly), but I can't find it.

What's a clear way to understand all this?

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The meaning of hardly has evolved over the centuries. So has the meaning of the adjective from which it is derived, hard. But where the adjective has accumulated meanings, so most of its meanings are still alive in one context or another, hardly has drifted from meaning to meaning.

I won't trouble you with the entire history (which you may find in the Oxford English Dictionary—look at Hard, both adjective and adverb, and Hardly); but by about 1600 hard had the senses of difficult and close, narrow, and both of these may be detected behind the modern sense of hardly.

When a historian writes that “The King hardly escaped, by charging with his own troop of horse solely, through the body of the enemy” he implies both that Charles escaped only with difficulty and that he escaped only narrowly” — by the skin of my teeth, we also say.

When Captain Corcoran boasts that he “never” curses, and then admits that it’s actually “hardly ever”, he’s claiming that it’s so close to “never” that it’s not worth dwelling on. In fact, it’s hardly even worth mentioning—very close to being not even worth mentioning at all.

In today’s use the difficulty sense has declined, but it’s kept alive by uses like the old song “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” in which a woman meets her old love who has been almost unrecognizably disfigured in war.

  • I hardly imagine more perfect an answer. – Nikana Reklawyks Jan 30 '13 at 3:23
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The way to understand it it's almost synonymous with "barely" except it's not satisfactory.

"The food storage barely suffices for the winter" means with rationing meals people will pass the winter without starving but never full. It's not optimal, but it's acceptable.

"The food storage hardly suffices for the winter" means it will suffice to survive the winter but people will be starving. They won't die, but they will definitely feel strong hunger and lose weight. It's not something you should accept unless you have no other options.

Another example:

"I barely passed the exam" - I needed score 40/100 and got 40 points. I can go have a drink and relax. It's not a stellar score but the job is done.

"I hardly passed the exam" - I needed score 40/100 and got 42 points. Technically, I passed. But the score counts towards global score which is required to advance to next year. Currently, with this exam I have 598/600 required and it means despite passing this exam I won't advance to the next year. I must approach this exam again and finish it with at least 44 points, then I will have barely passed into next year.

"Hardly" is sometimes an euphemism for "no". "That's hardly enough" usually means "do more, it's still not enough".

  • This explains hardly quite nicely ; but I have the feeling the “unsatisfactory” factor disapears in hardly ever, in which hardly is closer to almost, isn't it ? (Not mentionning hardly even, which I can't tell if it has some particular meaning itself.) – Nikana Reklawyks Jan 24 '13 at 11:43
  • @NikanaReklawyks: Yes, it -may- disappear. "You hardly ever need to fix anything in this car" - the car is very good. "You hardly ever visit us any more" - you definitely should visit us more often. – SF. Jan 24 '13 at 12:26

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