1. To almost no degree; barely at all; almost not: I could hardly hear the speaker.
2. Probably or surely not: He is hardly the kind of guy you would want to date. It's hardly a secret that they are engaged.
3. With great difficulty or effort: I could hardly get up the stairs.
4. With severity; harshly: "The winter months would deal hardly with many of these poor folk" (William Black).
[Middle English hardli, from Old English heardlīce, harshly, bravely, from heard, hard; see HARD.]
Usage Note: In Standard English, hardly, scarcely, and similar adverbs cannot be used with a negative. The sentence I couldn't hardly see him, for instance, is not acceptable. This violation of the double negative rule is curious because these adverbs are not truly negative in meaning. Rather, they minimize the state or event they describe. Thus hardly means "almost not at all," rarely means "practically never," and so forth. The sentence Mary hardly laughed means that Mary did laugh a little, not that she kept from laughing altogether, and therefore does not express a negative proposition. But adverbs like hardly and scarcely do share some important features of negative adverbs, even though they may not have purely negative meaning. For one thing, they combine with any and at all, which are characteristically associated with negative contexts. Thus we say I hardly saw him at all or I never saw him at all but not I occasionally saw him at all. Similarly, we say I hardly had any time or I didn't have any time but not I had any time and so on. Like other negative adverbs, hardly triggers inversion of the subject and auxiliary verb when it begins a sentence. Thus we say Hardly had I arrived when she left on the pattern of Never have I read such a book. · Hardly and other minimizing adverbs are properly followed by when and not than in sentences like I had hardly walked inside [when/than] it began to rain. In our 2008 survey, 79 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the use of than in the previous sentence. See Usage Notes at double negative, rarely, scarcely.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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