Words Ending in “-ly” Aren’t Always Adverbs

By Mark Nichol

Ask anyone to name a distinguishing characteristic of an adverb, and the reply might be that such a word ends with -ly. Although that is often true, some adverbs, such as fast, lack the ending. For this reason, they are known as flat adverbs. In addition, many words ending in -ly aren’t adverbs.

Many adjectives end in -ly (which means—and is cognate with—“like”), including some that are also adjectives in their “flat” form. For example, dead and deadly are both adjectives. Deadly may look like an adverb, but one cannot say that one person stared deadly at another person; a correct treatment would be to employ deadly as an adjective and use the noun form of stared: “He gave her a deadly stare.” A more prominent error is to use timely as if it were an adverb, as in “She was instructed to complete the report timely.” But it is an adjective, and should be treated as such, as in “She was instructed to complete the report in a timely manner.”

Some words ending in -ly serve as both adjectives and adverbs, such as friendly, likely, and stately. (Other adjectives that look like adverbs but serve only the former function include costly and worldly.) Others, which do not have root words, include early and ugly (both adjectives and adverbs) and burly and grisly (which are only adjectives). Occasionally, an adjective ending in -ly can be converted into an adverb by changing the ending to -lily, but words like friendlily and uglily are rare in writing and almost unheard of in speech.

Many adjectives are merely nouns referring to people and with -ly attached, as in the case of brotherly, neighborly, and scholarly, or pertaining to time (for example, monthly) or direction (for example, northerly). Note that many other nouns also end in -ly, such as assembly (based on the verb assemble) and bully (where the ending is a result of the pronunciation of the source word from another language), and some verbs do, too, such as comply and reply.

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5 Responses to “Words Ending in “-ly” Aren’t Always Adverbs”

  • D.A.W.

    I agree with venqax very much in the above. Adverbs are necessary.
    English is not German, in which the distinction between adjectives and adverbs is blurred in most cases.
    Also, then there are a few special words in English that function in four different parts of speech. One of these is “fast”: noun, verb, adjective, adverb. Can you name some more good ones (that are not cursewords.)
    People used to object to “fast” as meaning “quickly”, but in cases like the following, it seems to be useful:
    “Get out of here fast!”, “Light a campfire fast before it gets cold!”, and “Jump into the water fast – your pants are on fire!”
    The first idea can be condensed to two words: “Vamoose pronto!”, or to three words: “Plant some tracks!”, or to four: “Run for your life!”

  • venqax

    I might trade this problem for the promise to use adverbs at all. It seems like every day I hear (or, worse, read) that “someone did the job just perfect” or that “a group that was heavy armed” did something , or “they are assured the job was performed very safe” or that someone (I hope it was someone who talks like this) was “not taken serious” at all in some context. Drives me crazily.

  • Dale A. Wood

    More nouns, common and proper: Chantilly, Virginia (next to the Dulles International Airport), chantilly, dolly, Dolly, doily, Sicily (off the southwestern tip of Italy), the Isles of Scilly (off the southwestern tip of Cornwall), and Willy (a nickname for a woman named Wilhelmina – like my great-aunt Willy). Willy is sometimes a man’s name, too, willy-nilly.

    Adjectives, chilly, hilly, daily (The Daily Mail, too), manly, womanly, wooly. (“I saw a big wooly mammoth walking down Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday.”) Also, I cannot find this one in online dictionaries: patronly. but I swear that I have seen it: e.g. “Sarah’s grandfather gave her a patronly smile.”

    close: Don Henley, “Hinkley” (originally the name of “The Greatest American Hero” on TV, until a man named Hinkley shot President Reagan and several other men). The Hinkley Point “B” nuclear power plant in Somerset, England, near Bridgwater.
    (Bridgwater is not to be mistaken for Bridgewater, Massachusetts, spelled in a more reasonable way).
    Hinkley Point has made the news (in North America) because of a huge controversy about a proposed nuclear power plant there. (Everybody in England knows about this one.)
    The Hinkley Point A nuclear power plant was an old one that has long been closed. The Hinkley Point B power plant is the newer one that has been in operation for a long time. (I have a picture of it.) The proposed expansion, to be created next-door, a huge Hinkley Point C power plant is what it public controversy is about.
    An additional point of controversy is that a CHINESE consortium might become involved in the construction and financing of the Hinkley Point C power plant. (I would much rather live near an American, British-built, Canadian, French, German, or Swedish nuclear power plant than a Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, or Indian one. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want my power bill to be paid to the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, Saudi Arabians, South Africans, etc.)
    Also, see “Hinckley”.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Many, many thanks for this. I did not know that some -ly words weren’t adverbs and vice-versa. That’s what I get for majoring in engineering.

    Writers should keep in mind that this raises hyphenation issues, since adverbs shouldn’t be hyphenated. The problem is that both Windows and Macs, along with many of their apps, typically use the open-source Hunspell to check spelling. Originally intended for Hungarian, it regards any two legitimately spelled words as also correctly spelled if connected by a hyphen. Thus: “quickly-go” isn’t flagged on my Mac as misspelled.

    I’ve been using computers for writing since the mid-1980s, and I’m ticked out that spell-checker development seems to have frozen in the late 1980s. For all their hoarded billions, Adobe, Apple, Microsoft and others haven’t been giving the Hunspell developers enough money to fix these deficiencies. Until that happens, we’ll need to take care not to trust the misspell flags for hyphenation.

    It’d be great to have spell-checkers clever enough to understand all the little gotchas of English and, where there’s ambiguity, let us know about them. That’d be especially useful for those for whom English is a second language.

  • Scowlin Munkeh

    Hmm. What about ‘bigly’?

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