We can do something quick or do it quickly, go slow or go slowly. But though we can do something fast, we don’t do it fastly – this is not a word you’re likely to hear from a native English speaker. How come?
Fast, slow, and quick all belong to the set of adverbs in English known as flat adverbs. These are adverbs that look like their associated adjectives, because they don’t have the –ly ending we may have been taught to expect in adverbs. Fast is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have a corresponding –ly form in standard usage. Nor do long, far, or soon. We travel fast and long, go far and arrive soon, not fastly and longly, farly and soonly.
This is often a point of unnecessary contention. I see regular complaints about phrases like drive slow, especially if they appear in official contexts, from people who insist it should be drive slowly. But the complaint is unfounded: flat adverbs may sound less formal, but grammatically they’re fine.
Indeed, flat adverbs have a venerable history. Centuries ago in Old English, they were marked by inflections (usually –e), which were gradually dropped. This left the adverbs resembling adjectives, so –ly was sometimes added to mark them more explicitly as adverbs again. And so we ended up with pairs like bright and brightly, slow and slowly, soft and softly, wrong and wrongly.
The pairs are sometimes interchangeable (drive safe/safely); in other cases their meanings have diverged, as with late and lately, right and rightly, hard and hardly. We might kick a ball hard, but if we hardly kick it we mean something quite different. Sometimes one form appears in certain idioms and expressions while the other form does duty elsewhere.
As Emily Brewster notes in a short video about flat adverbs, prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, being overly attached to Latin grammar, thought flat adverbs were really adjectives being used incorrectly, and warned against their use. Before this, flat adverbs were more common and varied than they are now. Exceeding is a good example. If we browse Daniel Defoe’s writing we find such phrases as: weak and exceeding thirsty; it rained exceeding hard; it is exceeding confused. Today this usage has an archaic feel.
Those early grammarians’ misguided judgements were passed down for generations. Their influence is felt today not only in the absence of many flat adverbs that were formerly routine, but also in the uncertainty and intolerance towards surviving ones, as when comedian Weird Al Yankovic added -ly to a road sign that said Drive Slow. When you place stock in linguistic superstition instead of real grammar, it’s easy to go wrong.Email this Post