Why severally and several times have separate meanings

Saturday January 13 2018

 English lesson

Pupils of St Kevin Hills Academy answer a question during an English lesson on September 21, 2015. Severally and several times have separate meanings. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

More by this Author

If the word “severally” existed in English, it would be an adverb meaning “several times”. But, as I have warned here many times, “several times”, not severally , is the English expression. Yet the word “severally” remains common in all of East Africa’s English-language media.

In East Africa, the culprits include even individuals whose positions in the media and throughout the education system should long ago have compelled them to tame completely the Western European language called English. For the word severally remains wrongly used especially on the pages of East Africa’s print media.

However, I should remind all my readers throughout the lacustrine region that it was of our own political volition that, at independence, we (our nationalist leaders) unanimously latched onto English as our medium of classroom instruction and intellectual engagement outside the classroom.


Yet on page 20 of Nairobi’s own Daily Nation of Saturday, January 6, a scholarly columnist wrote as follows: “I told the students that the professor (had) taught me modern poetry and (had) severally mentioned ‘modernism’ in T. S. Eliot’s poetry...”  I freely confess, however, that, in that context, the word “severally” is the scholar’s. It is not my own .

Said he: “I told the students that the professor (had) taught me modern poetry and (had) severally mentioned ‘modernism’ in (the poetry of) T. S. Eliot…” That is part of the problem that faces us from our having latched onto English as our medium of instruction and of our daily political and cultural engagement.

For what passes as literature on East Africa’s university campuses remains nothing more than British — often just English — literature (as opposed even to Irish, Scottish and Welsh).


That shows how insular were those Europeans who introduced literature to all of us in high school as part of our intellectual grounding and discourse.

The point, however, is this: If you mean “several times”, please say “several times”, not severally. For — let me warn again for the umpteenth time — though severally exists, it does not mean “several times”. No, severally only means “separately”, “separate(d) from”, “severed from”, “apart from”, “one after the other”, suchlike.

The adjective several and the adverb severally, then, refer to the situation of something or some idea having been severed — that is to say separated — from something else into a number of other things.


It is in that way, then, that something becomes several things, namely, a greater number of things.

What was originally just a single entity has been divided into a number of entities. What was originally just one has been severed or separated and become several things. It is important to grasp this point because the word several gives most East Africans — even those engaged in newspapers and other media — no end of grief.

Thus to sever and to severe mean to divide something into several parts. Thus the two verbs , to severe and to separate, have the same etymological root, namely, to divide into several parts.