What are flat adverbs and what makes them special?
Today we’re going to see if we are allowed to “drive slow” instead of “slowly.” May we “jump high” or “sit up straight”? What about the advertising slogan “Eat fresh”? Yes, today is adverb day, with a sprinkling of adjectives.
What Are Adjectives and Adverbs?
An adjective modifies a noun or pronoun. For example, in the sentence “That is a real diamond,” “real” is an adjective that modifies the noun “diamond.” Other examples of adjectives are “happy” and “equal.”
Squiggly threw the girl a happy smile.
Aardvark hoped for equal time to charm her.
An adverb, on the other hand, modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs often have an “-ly” at the end, as in “happily” and “heartily.”
Squiggly happily posed for the cameras.
Aardvark heartily hoped he would get a turn in the limelight.
Such adverbs are usually formed by adding “-ly” to the end of an adjective, as we just did with the adjectives “happy” and “hearty.”
Do All Adverbs End in "-Ly"?
“Drive slow” isn't wrong because “slow” is a flat adverb.
Other adverbs, however, such as “very,” don't fit this pattern. You might complain, for example, “Sam eats very noisily.” In that sentence, the adverb “very” modifies another adverb, “noisily.”
To confuse matters, adjectives can also end in “-ly.” For example, in the sentence “The lonely wolf howled at the moon,” the adjective “lonely” modifies the noun “wolf.” So you can’t tell if words are adverbs or adjectives just by looking to see if they end in “-ly.” These two letters at the end of a word can be a clue, but you can’t rely on spelling.
What Are Flat Adverbs?
You must have heard the joke “Working hard? Or hardly working?” Both versions—“hard” and “hardly”—are adverbs. “Hardly” is one of those regular “-ly” adverbs. “Hard” is what’s called a flat adverb, which according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Modern Usage is “an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective” (1). Examples include the word “fast” in “Drive fast!” and “bright” in “The moon is shining bright” (2).
Merriam-Webster notes that grammarians have been arguing about this kind of adverb for at least a couple of centuries and shares the interesting fact that flat adverbs used to be a lot more common than they are now. The guide offers charmingly odd-sounding examples such as “…I was horrid angry…,” a 1667 quotation from Samuel Pepys; and “…the weather was so violent hot,” from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Few modern speakers would utter such statements, and they would be incorrect to do so, as you’re not allowed to chop off any old “-ly.” You couldn’t say, for example, “She dresses real smartly.” It would have to be “really smartly” since the adverb “really” modifies the adverb “smartly.” The word “real” is an adjective.
Which Words Are Flat Adverbs?
Modern speakers are, however, allowed to say things such as “Drive slow” and “Stay close.” Much as some sticklers would like these sentences to be as incorrect as “violent hot” is today, flat adverbs are real, and you can use them—really. Various style guides give many examples of bona fide flat adverbs. Here’s a short list: “far,” “fast,” “hard,” “slow,” “quick,” “straight” (3), “clean,” “close,” “deep,” and “fine” (4). So go ahead and say, “He kept his cards close” or “Please sit tight.”
Can Words Be Both Adjectives and Adverbs?
“What?” you may be thinking. “Words like ‘far,’ ‘close,’ and ‘tight’ are adjectives!” You’re right, but they can also be adverbs. Some adjectives and adverbs have the same form, and that’s what a flat adverb is. Some of these adjective-adverb-whatever-they-are-thingies never change. So “fast” always stays “fast.” You get into the fast lane, and you drive fast if you don't want to get rear ended. You never say, “fastly.” “Long” and “far” also fall into this category. You would definitely raise eyebrows if you tried to use “longly” or “farly.”
Now, you may also be thinking that you can sometimes stick an “-ly” onto these adjectives that are also adverbs. And you'd be right again! You are allowed to add an “-ly” to the word “close,” for example. You’ll get the very normal adverb “closely.”
Pairs of adverbs like this often convey different meanings, however, and you can’t use them interchangeably. The flat adverb “close” and the regular “-ly” adverb “closely” fall into this category. You could say, “Stand close,” but “Stand closely” would sound odd. You would use “closely” in a sentence such as “Look closely at this photograph.”
Other times both forms mean the same thing and you may use either one (5). Common pairs in this category include “Drive slow”/“Drive slowly” and “Hold on tight”/“Hold on tightly” (6). Go ahead and pick whichever one sounds best to you for your particular sentence. If you’re unsure about the form of an adverb, check your dictionary.