linguistics and lexicography Love English

Flat adverbs are exceeding fine

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesWe 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.

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Stan Carey

12 Comments

  • We have to look out for adjectives distinguished from adverbs in sentences like these: “He entered the house weakly” and “”He entered the house weak.” The former adverb defines the way he entered; the latter, the condition he was in when he entered.

    There is another explanation for “flat adverbs”: they are just (lexically) adverbs and, as adverbs (some) may be used as adjectives without affixation.

    I’m from the South where the suffix -ly is seldom heard: She walked weak, slow, pretty, invigorated–all sound OK to me.

  • Stan: You include ‘fast’, ‘long’, ‘far’, and ‘soon’ in your examples of flat adverbs. But surely the only defining feature of a flat adverb is that it has an alternative form ending in ‘-ly, like ‘quick’ and ‘slow’? Adverbs are a ragbag word class, and hundreds of them don’t end in ‘-ly’. The adverbs ‘fast’ and ‘soon’, for example, are just regular adverbs. The ‘unnecessary contention’ you mention relates mainly to adverbs which have an alternative ‘-ly’ form, like ‘quick’, ‘slow’, ‘wrong’, and ‘safe’. People object to these simply because there IS an ‘-ly’ form available, and because they think dropping the -‘ly’ is a new trend and therefore to be abhorred, like any new ‘grammar’. You are quite right about this; my question is simply ‘how would you define a flat adverb?’

  • Dr. Goodword: That’s a good point; ambiguity can indeed arise.

    Gill: Surely the word surely should be a warning sign! The defining feature of flat adverbs, per paragraph 2, is that they look like their associated adjectives. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage defines a flat adverb as “an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective”; it notes that “most of them compete with an -ly form”, from which we can infer that some don’t. While it’s true that people tend to complain only about the ones that have an -ly form available, this doesn’t bear upon what constitutes the category.

  • Okay ‘surely’ will be banned from my lexicon! I agree – the defining feature of flat adverbs is that they look like their associated adjectives. BUT as I said, you include ‘soon’ as a flat adverb. ‘Soon’ doesn’t have an associated adjective; it is just a regular adverb, like ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’, or ‘pronto’. So what’s flat about it? As for ‘fast’, I agree that it has the same form as the adjective ‘fast’. I thought you were including it in the ‘contention’ issue, because of the link between your paragraphs 1 and 2. Okay, you weren’t. But the point about ‘soon’ still puzzles me. I know it is on the lists – why? Maybe I’m just being incredibly thick.

  • There is an adverb soonly, but it’s rare; fastly is a bit less so, but would be considered archaic and non-standard. Yet I’ve seen people argue that “drive fast” is incorrect even when they realise “drive fastly” isn’t available. MWDEU says fast and soon “have managed to survive as the only choice”. This doesn’t mean they get kicked out of the flat adverbs club. What’s flat about them is that they are adverbs that don’t end in -ly.

  • You’re welcome, Valerie; I’m glad the post helped clear it up for you. I’m quite fond of the old flat adverbs too. It’s a pity they lost ground over simple misunderstanding.

  • I’m pretty sure I was taught that yesterday, today, and tomorrow were adverbs, modifiers for verbs.

  • The Years with Ross (1959), James Thurber’s account of the early years of the New Yorker, has a lovely example. It describes James M. Cain at Thanksgiving dinner “putting the turkey, platter and all, on the floor and carving it, blandly going on with the story he was telling, and he told stories exceeding well.”

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