Adverbs Ending in -ly

Do you know how to tell them from adjectives?

Rob Reinalda, read by Mignon Fogarty,
November 13, 2009
Episode #196


Rumack: Can you fly this plane and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.

That exchange from the movie “Airplane!” is presented—gratuitousLY—to spotlight adverbs ending in –ly, our topic for this week. 

Refresher on Adjectives and Adverbs

Before we get into adverbs' more nuanced applications, let’s have a quick refresher on adjectives and adverbs and the differences between them. 

An adjective modifies a noun or a pronoun:

  • the red apple

  • the warm sun

  • silly me

An adverb can modify a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a whole sentence:

  • Aardvark smiled slyly. (“Slyly” modifies the verb “smiled.”)

  • They engaged in a hotly contested campaign. (“Hotly” modifies the adjective “contested.”)

  • Squiggly danced very badly. (“Very” modifies the adverb “badly.”)

  • Fortunately, nobody noticed. (“Fortunately” modifies the whole sentence.)

adverbsYou may have noticed that three of the four adverbs had –ly endings, and that’s not unusual. Many adverbs are just adjectives with the -ly suffix: “accidental” becomes “accidentally,” “perfect becomes “perfectly,” “loving” becomes “lovingly,” “foolish” becomes “foolishly,” and so on. I’d list them all, but we’d be here indefinitely. But there are some exceptions . . .


Some words that end with –ly aren't adverbs, of course: “family” and “elderly,” among others. “Family” is a noun that can be used as an adjective: a family outing. “Elderly” is most commonly an adjective--the elderly daredevil--but it can be used as a collective noun as in this phrase: caring for the elderly

In the case of the word “bodily,” the –ly suffix turns a noun (“body”) into an adjective, “bodily,” as in “bodily functions”; but “bodily can also be used as an adverb, as in “Cindy removed Bruno bodily.” 

On the other hand, if you tack an –ly onto the noun “ear,” you get “early,” which can be an adjective and adverb, but has nothing to do with hearing – unless your parole hearing is early, I suppose.

You can see from these variations and similarities how confusion can arise—easiLY.


Writers often clutter their text by tossing in a superfluous –ly, often because common parlance has superseded proper usage. That is, people’s speech—which by nature is more casual—takes hold in even the most formal writing.

Say you’re writing a letter, memo, or article with several elements, and you want to offer them in serial form. Begin the paragraphs (or sentences, for shorter elements) with “first,” “second,” and “last”—NOT “firstly,” “secondly,” and “lastly.”

Let’s let the word “first” set the standard for the rest; the usages are the same. First can be an adjective—the first man on the moon—or an adverb—phone first if you’re coming to visit.

You might write or say: “First, the goal of this project is to increase sales of our sardine cookies.” (And good luck with that.)

Here, “first” is basically shorthand for “the first point is.” What follows is a noun; in this case it’s a big noun, a nominative clause—the goal of the project—but it still behaves like a noun, so its modifier is an adjective: first.

One could argue that by “first” you mean “in the first place,” so it would be an adverb. Fair enough, but either way you don’t need “firstly”; “first” will be just fine.

Is “firstly” a word? Well, sure, it’s in the dictionary. But if “first” can be used as an adverb, why the heck would you need or want to slap an –ly suffix on it? Spare your fingers the extra keystrokes, your mouth the extra syllable, and your audience the clunkiness of “firstLY.

”Is “firstly” a word? Well, sure, it’s in the dictionary. But if “first” can be used as an adverb, why the heck would you need or want to slap an –ly suffix on it? Spare your fingers the extra keystrokes, your mouth the extra syllable, and your audience the clunkiness of “firstLY.”

What about "most important"? Or should that be "most importantly"?

An ‘Important’ Point

Now let’s think about the phrase “most important,” which leads into a number of sentences and paragraphs. People often write and say, “most importantly.” 

Dictionary.com, citing Random House, offers this: “Today, more importantly is the more common, even though some object to its use on the grounds that more important is an elliptical form of ‘What is more important’ and that the adverb ‘importantly’ could not occur in such a construction.”

Importantly is an adverb. It could be used in a sentence as a synonym for pompously or pretentiously (alternative definitions, by the way): Aardvark strutted around his new office importantly. Yes, I’ll bet he did.

So, let’s go with “more (or most) important” as a lead-in—and use it judiciously. It's shorter and less contested. Often what the writer feels is most important may not be a priority for the reader. Then, the author could be writing “importantly”—in that pompously pretentious meaning of the word.

The Tip

If what you have to say next is an important thing to convey and receive, drop the –ly:

For example, “Most important, put a lid on the pot before the popcorn kernels start to pop.” 

One Last Thing

Incidentally, the usage of another -ly adverb, “hopefully,” was addressed in Episode 76. and in The Grammar Devotional (on page 45).

One last word about –ly adverbs, and it comes with guidance from the Associated Press Stylebook. When using a compound modifier, do not use a hyphen to link any adverb ending in –ly with the word it’s modifying: a recently hired executive, freshly baked bread, a newly minted coin, and so on.

Surely that’s easy to remember. Yes, yes—don’t call you Shirley.


This podcast was written by Rob Reinalda, executive editor for Ragan Communications (word_czar on Twitter), and I'm Mignon Fogarty, author of The Grammar Devotional, which makes a great gift for your writer friends, kids' teachers, and grammar enthusiasts everywhere.

Web Bonus

The -ad prefix in “adverb” and “adjective” means “toward,” so “adverb” means “toward the verb.”

The other root of “adjective” means “throw,” so “adjective” literally means something like “throw toward” when broken down to its roots, which unfortunately makes a lot less sense than the root of “adverb.” The Latin precursor of “adjective,” “adiectivus,” meant “to add to.”


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