Write Smart, Speak Loud, Think Quick: The Score on Suffixless Adverbs

October, 2018 Language Matters

Can you say drive slow, or is it drive slowly? Breathe deep or breathe deeply?

Many English adverbs end in -ly (beautifully, honestly, merely). This is because -ly is the usual suffix that tacks onto an adjective (beautiful, honest, mere) to create an adverb. Some other adverbs end in -wise (clockwise, otherwise, date-night-wise), and some never take a suffix (inside, midflight, so, thus). In linguistic parlance, an English adverb that derives from an adjective but doesn’t take an -ly suffix is called a flat adverb or a zero adverb. Some of these, including up and long, are part of standard English and have no -ly equivalent. But when a flat adverb (such as smart, loud or quick) does have an -ly form (smartly, loudly, quickly), many writers wonder whether it is acceptable to use the suffixless form. Read on for tips on how to choose between using a suffixless adverb and its suffixed equivalent.

Historical Background

Flat adverbs appeared [before] -ly adverbs in Old English and were used liberally through Middle English and into Modern English.1

’Tis bitter cold

Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1.1.10)

Flat adverbs became discouraged in Britain in the 19th century by prescriptive grammarians who viewed them as ungrammatical. At the same time in North America, language experts were endorsing flat adverbs as grammatically correct and even “ancient and dignified”.2

Flat Adverbs: Formality and Style

For certain adverbs, or in certain syntactic contexts, a flat adverb simply can’t replace its -ly form.

*I’m not exact happy about this.
*She confident explained her views.
*Mona won’t be coming, apparent.

Many flat adverbs are restricted to nonstandard English.

We visit the beach regular.
Andy takes this game so serious.
I had a real nice time.

However, in numerous cases, a flat adverb’s level of formality is harder to pin down.

We flew direct from Los Angeles to New York.
We flew directly from Los Angeles to New York.

We followed close behind.
We followed closely behind.

In such cases, Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage (2009) suggests letting “rhythm and euphony be your guides” when choosing which form of the adverb to use. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) holds that flat adverbs often work “equally well or even better” than the -ly alternative, especially in the imperative.

Shop smart, cook clever, eat less

the slogan for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s 2013 cookbook Save with Jamie

In the example above, would shop smartly, cook cleverly, eat less have sounded as punchy?

Syntactic Observations

Linguists have found that the comparative (e.g. sweeter) and superlative (sweetest) forms of flat adverbs are more welcome in standard English than their absolute form (sweet). For example, standard English accepts both louder and more loudly as adverbs.

Zach sang louder.

flat adverb in the comparative

Zach sang more loudly.

suffixed adverb in the comparative

Note, however, that flat adverbs are virtually never seen before the verb they modify, whereas -ly adverbs can precede the verb.

The children quickly left.
The children left quick.
*The children quick left.

Semantic Differentiation

In certain -ly and flat adverb pairs, a difference in meaning has developed between the two. For example, adverbial late means “after or past the expected time” or “near the end of a period of time” whereas lately can only mean “recently”.

My plane arrived late.

Not *My plane arrived lately.

Lately, she’s begun singing in the shower.

Not *Late, she’s begun singing in the shower.

Other dual-form adverb pairs with distinct meanings include hard/hardly, pretty/prettily and great/greatly.

Celine works hard.

Celine puts a lot of effort into her work.

Celine hardly works.

Celine rarely works or puts little effort into her work.

That lecture was pretty dull.
Alex sings prettily.

This fits great.

Keep in mind that adverbial great is informal.

My score has greatly improved.

There are many idiomatic phrases that require the flat adverb over its -ly counterpart:

take it easy
sleep tight
hear someone loud and clear
think straight
get it cheap
dig deep

Replacing the flat adverb with an -ly form in these expressions would be a hypercorrection (*I can’t think straightly).


Using a suffixless adverb is sometimes a fine choice, so long as you match your word choice to the level of formality required. Further, writers should be careful not to add the -ly suffix when an adverb’s standard form never takes it, so use thus instead of thusly and doubtless instead of doubtlessly.

  1. Kemenade, Ans Van and Bettelou Los. The Handbook of the History of English. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, p. 498. 

  2. Greenough, J.B. and G.L. Kittredge. Words and Their Ways in English Speech. New York, The Macmilland Company, 1920, p.199. 

No results