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My Italki teacher says that there is a difference between "mayormente" and "principalmente", but he's finding it hard to articulate just what the difference is. Is it one of meaning? Of register? Something else?

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While the formal definition of mayormente simply refers to principalmente, and for the most part they can be used synonymously, it seems in actual usage mayormente translates as "largely" or "mostly". Examples from Linguee (where the bold indicates translation from mayormente):

Simultaneously, Europe's population is becoming largely urbanized and more physically separated from the natural resources…
This condition was mainly brought about by the weakening of social policies in the 1980s, by the prioritisation of other…
All the more so as we mostly live in a border-free area where decisions affect our neighbours.
Chile's economic growth has been largely driven by mining activity and many companies in this sector are involved in giving…

There's a lot of overlap, of course, but to my ears mayormente, because it derives from mayor ("greatest"), suggests a straightforward quantifiable comparison. Whereas principalmente suggests a qualitative comparison ("foremost, most importantly"). The contrast is subtle but at least I find it most natural to use mayormente when speaking of quantifiable things, for example:

La población argentina es mayormente urbana.
Nuestra economía depende mayormente de las exportaciones agrícolas.

While I'd rather use principalmente when addressing qualities or types of things:

Los estudiantes de esta universidad son principalmente de clase media.
Nuestra industria necesita hoy principalmente ingenieros y técnicos.

I suppose certain types of verbs actually require one adverb or the other; for example, La industria necesita mayormente ingenieros sounds rather strange to me, though I can't really articulate why.

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  • I found your answer useful, and agree with you that the main difference - if any - lies in the quantitative-qualitative distinction you mention. I personally don't find anything wrong with La industria necesita mayormente ingenieros, though I admit that "principalmente" might sound better there. – Gustavson Mar 26 '17 at 23:25
  • Would it not be better to say, "La población argentina es mayoritariamente urbana?" – aris Mar 27 '17 at 21:41
  • This makes a lot of sense. It reminds me of the difference in English between "less" and "fewer". – Tony Mar 29 '17 at 1:08
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Mayormente means "for the most part" or "mostly" and is related to "mayor (parte)" and "mayoría" both meaning "majority" or "the most part", hence, there is a tendency to use "mayormente" when there is a reference to an existing majority of some kind.

Principalmente means "mainly". But "main" and "majority" are different things.

Taking two examples from pablodf76's answer:

La población argentina es mayormente urbana.

What makes it "urban for the most" is that the most of us live in cities, the majority of us live in cities. You could say with very little change to meaning: La población es mayoritariamente urbana.

Nuestra industria necesita hoy principalmente ingenieros y técnicos.

Here engineers and technicians are the main need, but not necessarily what we need in largest numbers. Perhaps we need just two engineers and three technicians to get 95% of our industry going, and 10.000 janitors and security guards or whatever to complete the other 5%. So the main thing are the engineers and technicians, but they are not the majority, and even if we needed more engineers than janitors... we still need them, so still no majority yet.

OK, after having said all that: in practice, they are synonyms, and it takes as much OCD as I have to know the exact difference. :-) Don't fret too much on this.

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