Yesterday, I was having a beer with friends when they started discussing the difference between luckily and fortunately. After a while, they turned to me and asked me if I could explain the difference. I told them, rather hesitantly, that there is no difference except the degree of formality; I said I wouldn’t use luckily in a very formal context. I could see my friends’ doubtful expressions. They weren’t convinced by my explanation at all and they insisted that the words had different connotations.
My friends’ stubbornness made me do a little research the next day; I consulted several of my favourite online sources and here’s what I’ve found:
- bilingual dictionary entry (translation from L2) > L1: luckily – naštěstí, fortunately – naštěstí (pro koho = for whom). At first sight, the words have identical meanings. The only difference is that fortunately can be followed by an object (And luckily cannot? We’ll see.).
- monolingual online dictionary entry: luckily – by good luck; fortunately, fortunately –sentence modifier, it is fortunate that; luckily. Again, judging by the definitions, the words are near synonyms.
- thesaurus entry: fortunately > the first synonym is luckily, but for luckily, the first synonym offered is happily, the next two are fortuitously and fortunately. The same happens to their antonyms: unfortunately – the synonyms are unluckily, sadly and regrettably, but for unluckily, the synonyms offered are in the following order: regrettably, sadly, lamentably and unfortunately. I don’t know what to infer from this finding, but judging by some example sentences, it seems to me that luckily is used when you feel happy (and relieved) about the consequences of an event, for example, but when using fortunately, you feel more relieved than happy. Just a thought.
- corpus (British National Corpus): fortunately has 1609 hits while luckily only has 669 occurrences. We say fortunately for + object (130 cooccurrences > 8%) and fortunately is followed by a comma (584 occurrences > 36%). Luckily is also followed by a comma (198 > 29%) and we say luckily for + object (55 > 8%). This is the first tiny discrepancy between the bilingual dictionary and corpora (see above). COCA also shows more hits for fortunately (7608) than for luckily (2999). So, as far as frequency is concerned, fortunately is more frequent than luckily, but the two words behave similarly in a sentence, i.e they can be followed by a comma or the preposition for. Both are most likely to be preceded by a period.
- Longman Communication 3000 represents the core of the English language and shows students of English which words are the most important for them to learn and study in order to communicate effectively in both speech and writing. So, when deciding which word to teach first, it’s good to check this list out. As mentioned above, according to BNC, fortunately is far more frequent in written English than luckily. Surprisingly, fortunately is not listed in Longman Communication 3000 but luckily is (but only in spoken English). From a pragmatic teacher’s point of view, luck and lucky are two of the top 2000 words of spoken English (S2) plus they are much easier to learn, remember and pronounce than fortune or fortunate so I’d definitely teach them first.
6. A quick look at the Online Etymology Dictionary can be interesting as well. Luckily is a slightly older term than fortunately and their origins differ. While fortune is derived from Latin and French, luck is probably of early Middle Dutch origin. However, both words refer to what happens by chance and it seems that both had originally something to do with money.
My conclusion is this: both luckily and fortunately are very useful words. Based o the corpora findings, fortunately is more frequent in written English while luckily is more natural is spoken English (see Figures 1 and 2). However, based on the sample sentences, they can be used interchangeably in most contexts.
What do you do when you’re asked about a linguistic problem like this and you’re not sure what the answer is? Do you rely on your hunch or do you research like I did?