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When Adverbs Fall Flat

Adverbs end in -ly and modify verbs. At least, that's what we're taught in elementary school.

It's a fair start, but we soon learn that adverbs are more complicated than the rule implies. For a start, adverbs can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, phrases, and clauses. And they don't have to end in -ly, either. Witness quite, however, and very.

Even knowing that, we sometimes regress to the first rule we learned, the elementary schoolteacher we've installed in our heads reminding us of our grammar basics and causing us to overcorrect ourselves.

One particular group of adverbs that causes our inner schoolteacher to rise up are flat adverbs. You might also here them called bare or immediate adverbs. These adverbs have the same spelling as the adjective form of the word: bright, easy, and fast, for example.

English used to have a long list of flat adverbs, but that list has dwindled in the last few centuries. Eighteenth-century grammarians (you knew they'd be involved, didn't you?) didn't understand how adjectives like cheap and late could be used as adverbs because (wait for it) that's not how Latin worked. These scholars concluded—incorrectly, it turns out—that instead of "Go slow," you should say "Go slowly."

Since then, language users have reduced the list, rejecting first one word and then another as not useful or ungrammatical. Here are some of the most common ones:

bad fast right
bright hard safe
cheap high sharp
clear late slow
easy loud sure
even near tight
fair quick wrong

Flat adverbs fall into one of three categories:

  1. Those that don't have an -ly form.
  2. Those that have an -ly form with which they share meanings.
  3. Those that have an -ly form with which they don't share all meanings.

The first category is simple enough. Adverbs like fast just don't have -ly forms, so they move from adjective to adverb duty without much fuss:

Although Aunt Mary has a fast car, she doesn't like to drive fast.

In the second category, you'll find words like bright and quick. The bare and -ly forms are often interchangeable:

The sun shone bright that morning, causing the snow to melt quick.
The sun shone brightly that morning, causing the snow to melt quickly.

The third category is the most troublesome, because we don't always realize that while terms like hard and near have -ly forms, they aren't perfectly compatible. The two forms may share some senses of meaning but not all:

Tom worked hard at perfecting his golf swing.
Tom hardly worked at perfecting his golf swing.

There is a pattern, however, in this third category. Adverbs like hard, near, tight, and wrong generally can only follow their verbs and can often not modify anything other than a verb. Some of them have been fossilized in idioms, as well, such as sit tight.

Meanwhile, those adverbs' -ly forms have broader usage. They can go before or after the thing they modify and can modify more than a verb. They also have more definitions, so you're likely to see them more often.

The biggest problem with flat adverbs is that they are still losing status. As the list shrinks, we hear them less often. They often sound odd to our ears, unless they part of a well-worn phrase. Flat adverbs don't appear frequently in print and are often tolerated only in casual usage.

Though some usage experts label these words as mistakes or nonstandard, they are not. Yet that doesn't change their reception. You may wish to choose the more socially acceptable -ly form when it's available or a neutral synonym.

When in doubt about a flat adverb's meaning or usage, though, the solution is simple: check a dictionary. Your inner schoolteacher will be proud of you.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 19th 2013, 7:58 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Most helpful
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
I would argue that flat adverbs seem to be gaining the upper hand, especially in casual usage. Many people seem to be unaware of the -ly versions of them, perhaps as a result of less exposure to them in print.

Along with the exclusive use of "less"--some people never use "fewer" even when the noun is quantifiable--flat adverbs seem to be the wave of the future.

Many flat adverbs still sound wrong to my ears, as wrong as "10 items or less."
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 2:44 PM
Comment by: Julie C
Not too long ago, a county in Oregon printed highway signs urging drivers to "drive friendly." That's a case of......I don't know what!
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Terri W. (Beaverton, OR)
Helpful! Thanks!
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Julie, several dictionaries list "friendly" as an adverb as well as an adjective, but in a quick search I'm not finding an example. The other adverb form for "friendly" is "friendlily," a word not used often. And for obvious reasons, I think; it's incredibly awkward. Had I had any input into that Oregon sign, I would have suggested something less awkward.

Susan, perhaps flat adverbs are making a comeback, particularly given the increase in casual writing. Most of them don't bother me. When they do, I generally rewrite the sentence.

Gordon and Terri, you're welcome!
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 4:28 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Speaking of adjective-not-adverb -ly words, I recently read this sentence in a newspaper article not long ago: "The Riverside officers were cowardly ambushed."
Tuesday February 19th 2013, 10:17 PM
Comment by: mac
"The sun shone bright that morning, causing the snow to melt quick."
it would seem to me that, due to the construction, quick is now a noun.
don't ask me what "a" quick is . . .
Wednesday February 20th 2013, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mac, I can see your reading, but "quick" would be an adverb; it describes the melting. Adverbs often follow the verbs they modify, so the construction is natural.
Wednesday February 20th 2013, 11:04 PM
Comment by: GingerSoCrazy (Kissimmee, FL)
Guilty as charged!, I have a bad habit of using the word hardly, and it just sounds tacky, so I am retraining my brain in many areas and that word I am eliminating from my vocabulary.
Thanks, nice article. G
Tuesday April 9th 2013, 12:51 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
"Adverbs end in -ly." Well, some do though, as you note, only some. But -ly isn't only for making adverbs: it makes adverbs from adjectives, but it makes adjectives from nouns.
Tuesday April 9th 2013, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I would say "drive friendly" is a deliberately "folksy" takeoff on "be friendly"...

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A Likely Story