Flat Adverbs Are Flat-Out Useful

By Mark Nichol

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb or another adverb, or perhaps an adjective — or possibly even a clause or an entire sentence. How versatile! But there’s more to this part of speech: It can sometimes shed the nearly ubiquitous -ly ending and, though it subsequently appears to be an adjective, retains its adverbial function.

The most notorious instance of this transformation was the 1997 Apple Computer ad campaign that urged people to “Think different.” Oh, the uproar from uptight grammarians! (Followed by a quieter “Get over it” from — ahem — more open-minded observers.) Not only has different been attested in adverbial use for hundreds of years, but many other similar terms are part of the language (and they used to be even more common than they are now).

Some flat adverbs have no normal adverbial form (that is, one ending in -ly): Straight is one example. Others have a normal form, but the two forms have distinct meanings (“Jump high,” but “I think highly of her”). Still others are interchangeable. (“Hold on tight” and “Hold on tightly” mean the same thing.)

Here are some other flat adverbs; note how they’re most often suitable for brief imperative sentences (those in which the writer is issuing a direction or a command):

1. Bright: This word is interchangeable with brightly in sentences such as “The stars shine so bright on moonless nights.”

2. Clean: This usage is distinct from the -ly form: The idiomatic expression “Come clean” doesn’t have the same sense as the literal phrase “Come cleanly shaved.”

3. Close: The flat form and the normal form have related but different meanings: “Keep close,” but “Keep closely arrayed in formation.”

4. Deep: This term can be interchangeable with the -ly form (“Breathe deep” and “Breathe deeply” are identical in meaning), but it also has a distinct idiomatic usage: “Go deep.”

5. Far: This flat adverb has no -ly form: “You will go far in life.”

6. Fast: Fast is another flat adverb with no normal equivalent: “Run fast.”

7. Flat: The flat and normal senses of this term are similar but distinct: “I was turned down flat,” but “I was flatly refused.”

8. Hard: Hard and its -ly form are highly distinct in meaning: “I hit it hard” is almost the opposite of “I hardly hit it.”

9. Kind: Kind and kindly have slightly different roles: “Be kind,” but “Think kindly of her.”

10. Quick: This flat adverb is interchangeable with its normal equivalent: “Come quick” and “Come quickly” mean the same thing.

11. Right: Right and rightly have different senses: “Do right,” “Stay right there,” or “He aimed right for the target,” but “You are rightly upset.”

12. Sharp: Sharp and its normal form are interchangeable (“Dress sharp,” or “Dress sharply”), but there’s also a distinct flat-form meaning: “Show up at eight o’clock sharp.”

13. Slow: Slow and slowly are interchangeable: “Drive slow” and “Drive slowly” mean the same thing.

14. Soon: This flat adverb has no -ly equivalent: “Come again soon.”

15. Tough: This adverb is also without a normal version: “Hang tough.”

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21 Responses to “Flat Adverbs Are Flat-Out Useful”

  • Shawn

    Nice article. It got me wondering about the word “bad.”

    Do “I want money so bad I can taste it,” and “I want money so badly I can taste it” mean the same thing? I think they do in this context.

  • Mark Nichol

    Shawn:

    Yes “I want money so bad I can taste it” and “I want money so badly I can taste it” mean the same thing — but only the latter is strictly correct. Bad in this context is widely understood but not standard. Details to come: I’ll write a post about bad and badly soon.

  • Chioma

    This is an illuminating article, Mark. And I love this site, keep it up.

    By the way, I would appreciate it if someone cleared me on this:
    I AM/ I’M vs AM.
    I mean, I’ve heard people use the latter in place of either of the first two. For instance: “Am not hungry.”
    It just doesn’t sound right to me. What do you think?

  • Meic Lorens

    Quote from Hillary Clinton in the US EmbassY cables: The Secretary also noted the challenges posed by China’s economic rise, asking, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”

  • M. Lichlyter

    You really want us to “BREATHE deeply” (or deep), right? Or has “breath” become a verb? It wouldn’t surprise me, and if you say so I will be rightly corrected.

  • Freeman Presson

    I’m seeing breath instead of breathe and other elisions of terminal e a lot. I suspect schools are not getting around to teaching orthographic spellings such as double consonants and terminal e’s.

    More to the point, I am reading Tolkien to my youngest now, and I notice that he uses a preponderance of flat adverbs, both in _The Hobbit_ and in _Lord of the Rings_. I don’t know what to make of that.

  • Michelle Baker

    Brilliant post! Different has been troubling me for years. Now I understand why. Thank you for explaining the difference.

  • shirley in berkeley

    Apple’s slogan “Think Different” seemed to me to be current slang: “Think DIFFERENT,” meaning the product was different from everything else, not an admonishment to think some other way. Apple never said so, but why should they? If people were talking about an ad, wasn’t that the point?

  • Tara Lynx

    Lovely list–I agree that avoiding “-ly” is always a good thing.

    I disagree with you example in #9, though–“Be kind!”

    “Kind” isn’t an adverb there. “Be” is a copula, so it takes an adjective, not an adverb. No matter which word you’d plug into “Be _____,” you’d always have to use the adverbial form: “Be honest,” “Be cruel,” “Be amazing.”

    Also loved your article on writing for the web, btw. 🙂

  • James

    Interesting. Perhaps a way to circumvent the timeless “kill all adverbs” rule in writing without blatantly violating it to its face?

  • SA Heitz

    Interesting post! One instance of flat adverbs that has been bothering me is that on reality TV shows like Big Brother and Survivor, people say “You’re playing personal” instead of “You’re playing personally.” This dropping of the “ly” is so universal, I can’t tell if this is just a case of bad grammar (entirely possible) or if it has become accepted usage. What do you think?

  • Mark Nichol

    SA:

    They’re misstating the idiomatic phrase “You’re getting personal,” I think.

  • SA Heitz

    Mark,

    Thanks for replying. I don’t think it’s used in the same way as “getting personal,” as it occurs in a discussion of game play: “Am I playing strategic, or am I playing personal?” It seem so ubiquitous, because the players use it and then the recappers use it.

  • Peter Chastain

    I think the “adverbs” in many of your examples are actually adjectives, with the verbs functioning as copulas. For example, in “[You] come clean,” “clean” modifies “you,” just as it would in “You be clean.” Similarly, in “You keep close,” and “You will go far,” the words “close” and “far” describe “you,” not the keeping or going.

    In “Do right,” “right” is a direct-object noun.

    “Come quick” is an example of the incorrect use of an adjective where an adverb is required, in my opinion.

  • Erica

    I think Peter has the right of it here.

    Think about the difference in meaning between saying “I smell bad” and “I smell badly.”

    I find it distracting when people write “She ran quick” or “He walked slow” in fiction, for instance, unless the narrative is in a deep limited third or a first person a colloquial voice where the pov character would actually say this.

    But “She leaned in close” isn’t really modifying how she did the act of leaning. It’s modifying where “she” is, thus it’s an adjective.

  • Janice

    Your article is interesting and makes some good points about when the -ly form of a word has a different adverbial meaning than the same word without the -ly. That being said, I’m convinced that the move back toward flat “adverbs” is really a sign of the overall laziness of our society that says “Do whatever’s easiest.” If one doesn’t need to understand the function of a word (adjective vs. adverb) in a sentence, one doesn’t need to think about the proper form.

  • Shelane

    I often hear people tell me to “drive safe” and it drives me crazy. I looked for it on this list to see if it was one that could be considered equivalent to safely, but I don’t see it.

  • Jim

    This is working perfect? Anyone know where I can find a complete list of adverbs?

  • Mark

    I’ve never heard this usage given a name before. Thanks for that.
    Of course, German and other Germanic languages routinely use the same form for adverbs and adjectives, so there is a clear precedent. I assume this is why Tolkein does it (Freeman Pressonon September 20, 2011 11:23 am) – part of his re-Saxonisation of English.
    I jocularly use “I’m good” and “My bad” (grace à Will Smith). However, where a valid -ly form exists, I would only use the flat form with conscious irony.
    I noticed a trend about three years ago for hypercorrection of “thus” to “thusly” – seems to have died out again. What would you call that? An “unflat” adverb? A “lumpy” adverb?

  • Hayden

    For years my friend has constantly corrected me when I say “real quick.” Telling me that I should be saying, “really quickly”

    This article makes me think that my use of “quick” is fine, but is my use of “real”?

  • Scott

    I think the original author is confusing the issue. True flat adverbs are very rare in modern English. Peter and Erica have it right. In most cases cited, the modifier is actually an adjective and acting as an adjective because the verb is either directly a state-of-being verb or could be replaced by one. That “stars shine bright” is also conveyed by “stars are bright,” etc.

    The example `I hit it hard,” contains is a good example of a flat adverb, but even here, and in most other examples not involving a state-of-being verb, it can be seen that the sentence could be rewritten in a way that the adverb is really an adjective modifying the gerund form of the verb. “ She was running fast” ->“What kind of running was she doing? Her running was fast.” What kind of hit was it? It was a hard hit. The modifier in all cases like this is indicating a class of the action verb, not simply modulating the action. Notice that it is difficult to convey “I hardly hit it,” in this adjective-gerund form.

    So, Hayden, your friend may be really quick in correcting your English because de does it really quickly and a real friend would probably be quick to realize that you’ve heard his correction and prefer the nonstandard form anyway.

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