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Adjectives and Adverbs: When to Use -ly

Do you wonder when to add -ly to a word? For example, should you say, “He speaks slow” or “He speaks slowly.” Let’s find out.

Adjectives describe nouns and pronouns. They may come before the word they describe: “That is a cute puppy.” Adjectives may also follow the word they describe: “That puppy is cute.”

Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. If an adverb answers how and can have an -ly attached to it, place it there.

She thinks slow/slowly. Slowly answers how she thinks.
We performed bad/badly. Badly answers how we performed.
She thinks fast/fastly. Fast may be either an adjective or an adverb. In this example, fast answers how she thinks. There is no such word as fastly.

Rule: When comparing, don’t drop the -ly. Simply add more or less.
He speaks more slowly than his brother.

Rule: English grammar has one tricky caveat that seems like an exception to these easy rules: If the verb is one of these four senses—taste, smell, look, feel—don’t ask how. Instead, ask if the sense verb is used actively. If so, attach the -ly. If the sense verb is not used actively, which is more common, don’t attach -ly.
Roses smell sweet/sweetly. Do roses actively smell with noses? No, so no -ly.
The woman looked angry/angrily. Is the woman actively looking with eyes? No, only her appearance is being described.
She feels bad/badly about the news. She is not feeling with fingers so no -ly.
She feels bad/badly since burning her fingers. She feels with her fingers here so the adverb (-ly form) is used.


Pop Quiz

1. I feel bad/badly about telling that secret.
2. Walk slower/more slowly, please.
3. You look sad/sadly about the news.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. I feel bad about telling that secret.
2. Walk more slowly, please.
3. You look sad about the news.

Posted on Sunday, October 7, 2007, at 11:09 pm


44 Responses to “Adjectives and Adverbs: When to Use -ly

  1. losy says:

    why the answer is bad in this sentens i feel bad/badly about telling that secret please tell me

  2. dusan vesi says:

    hello, you wrote that adverbs ending with -ly, where this -ly is not a suffix but just a part of words should not be hyphenated as modifiers. should i hyphenate words like these?
    a highly-impossible solution.
    a highly-developed technology.
    highly-sensitive teeth.
    a closely-held corporation.
    a family-owned estate.
    and why is it that you can hyphenate ‘a friendly-looking man’, when ‘friendly’ is an adverb?
    thank you for your answer

    • We believe you are asking about Rules 4 and 5 of the “Hyphens” section.

      Rule 4 says, “Generally, hyphenate between two or more adjectives when they come before a noun and act as a single idea.”

      In the phrase friendly-looking man, “friendly-looking” is a compound-adjective describing the noun man. It is not an adverb. That is why there is a hyphen.

      Rule 5 states, “When adverbs not ending in -ly are used as compound words in front of a noun, hyphenate. When the combination of words is used after the noun, do not hyphenate.”

      Since all of the examples you gave do end in -ly, this rule does not apply to them. Only compound adjectives–adjectives that act as one idea with other adjectives–get hyphenated in front of nouns. According to The Chicago Manual of Style (7.82), “Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible.” Thus, in your examples, the correct usage would be:

      highly impossible solution
      highly developed technology
      highly sensitive teeth
      closely held corporation

      family-owned estate (family-owned is a compound adjective).

  3. Brian Jones says:

    Dear Grammar Book,

    I just started re-reading the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, and came up with this poem to remember “Rule 2.” from the “Adjectives and Adverbs” section:

    Roses with noses smell sweetly,
    While those with no beak just smell sweet.


    Brian Jones

  4. Paula says:

    What is a good rule with more than one adjective, like below? There are 155 of them and they are gallon size.

    • On our website, Rule 4 of Hyphens Between Words states, “Generally, hyphenate between two or more adjectives when they come before a noun and act as a single idea.” The way your sentence is written, it leads the reader to believe the plants are 155-gallon size. We would recommend writing, “You brought in 155 one-gallon foliage plants,” to avoid confusion.

  5. muqaddas says:

    i got it it is very good website plz show us some more topics

  6. Michelle says:

    Hey..I hv some confuse..
    do u mean that only that thing happen on us and we can really feel it just adding -ly bhind the word?..

    • Michelle says:

      she feels badly since burning her finger…(experience)
      And she feel bad about the news(doesn’t experience on the girl)

      • Our Rule 2 of Adjectives and Adverbs states, “A special -ly rule applies when four of the senses – taste, smell, look, feel – are the verbs . . . [A]sk if the sense verb is being used actively [in this case really feeling or experiencing it]. If so, use the -ly.

        Therefore, “She feels badly since burning her finger” is correct. However, to make sure you are being clearly understood, you could reword your sentence to “Her sense of touch is poor since burning her finger.”

  7. nicole says:

    how does a verb ending with -ly is used as an adjective?

    • A word ending in -ly is not a verb. It can be an adverb or an adjective. When used as an adjective, it modifies a noun. Here are some examples of -ly adjectives:

      Frank was lonely when he first moved to his new town.
      Patches is a very friendly dog.
      That is a lovely dress you are wearing!

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Which is correct and why?

    The boat was going slow.
    The boat was going slowly.

    Thank you.

  9. Liz says:

    I’m going crazy listening to people nowadays who don’t use ly at the end of words. Even well known people, such as, news correspondents, etc. fail to use it. I’m sure they must still teach proper English usage in school these days, do they not?

    • As far as we know, teachers are still teaching proper English in the schools. It is possible that the informal language used in text messaging and other forms of modern communication are creeping into and having a deleterious effect on formal communication.

  10. Carol says:

    I am SO glad somebody else has noticed this. I thought I was going crazy. People look at me like I’ve lost my marbles and tell me I am wrong when I correct them or notice others. I’ve even started doubting myself.

  11. Marisa says:

    I recently was corrected for this sentence.

    “The sheets came out perfect.” I was told to use perfectly instead. Is that correct?

  12. Isabelle says:

    Adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. If an adverb answers how and can have an -ly attached to it, place it there.

    Example: She thinks slow/slowly. Slowly answers how she thinks.

    Example: We performed bad/badly. Badly answers how we performed.

    Example: She thinks fast/fastly. Even though fast answers how she thinks, there is no such word as fastly.
    Where’s the verb, i can’t see an example

  13. Erebody says:

    The website has a slow to moderate streaming video feed.
    The website has a moderate streaming video feed.

    Is moderate used correctly in these sentences, or should one or both sentences use moderately? Thank you for your help!!

  14. Jackie says:

    One of the professional staff always uses the word “irregularly” to describe a parcel of land which I am uncomfortable using, e.g.

    “Each of the properties is irregular in shape and the properties comprising the winery complex form an irregularly shaped parcel of land.”

    Can you please explain if his use is correct or otherwise?

    Thank you

    • The word irregularly, defined in Webster’s New World as “not symmetrical, not uniform,” is fine in the sentence. Perhaps you were put off because it’s used twice within a single sentence, as is “properties.” Please note also that comprising is incorrectly used: The winery complex comprises the properties, not the other way around. So a correct alternative might be:

      “Each of the properties is asymmetrical in shape and the acreage making up the winery complex forms an irregularly shaped parcel of land.”

  15. Angelo S. says:

    What is correct?

    When a doctor is going to look into your mouth, should he say, “Open wide” or “Open widely” ? Please let me know.

    I think the former since I remember learning that with commands, you do not use adverbs:

    Run fast! instead of Run quickly!

    • In the command “open wide,” “open” acts as a linking verb, therefore taking the adjective, as in “smells bad” rather than “smells badly.” “Open wide” is really a concise way of saying, “Open so that your mouth is as wide as possible.”

  16. Andrea says:

    Hello, there is a commercial that says, “Is your computer running slow?” Should it be “running slowly?” I would think it is, but maybe I am missing something?


    • Our general recommendation is that if a word can have an -ly added to its adjective form, place it there to form an adverb. However, for over 400 years, slow has been accepted as an adverb as well as an adjective. We’d prefer slowly, but slow is acceptable.

  17. Gaurav sharma says:

    Hello there, My question is can the adverb ‘only’ be used at the end of a sentence or not and please tell me which one is correct I have only fifty dollars or I have fifty dollars only. If the second sentence is correct then what does it mean? does it mean the same, and my second question is when to use who is who, who is which, who is whom, whom is who, which is who,which is which,whose is whose etc.

    • In English, an adverb is typically in close proximity to the verb that it modifies. In your example, the word only modifies the verb have, therefore it is best to write “I only have fifty dollars,” or “I have only fifty dollars.”

      The phrases “who is who” and “which is which” are phrases that are used when asking for help in distinguishing two similar or unknown people or things. “Who is who” is used for people and “which is which” is used for things.
      The phrase “who is who” could be used in the following instances:
      A person looking at a photograph of a group of people could ask, “Can you tell me who is who?” if the names of the people are not known.
      A person looking at identical twins could say, “I don’t know how you can tell who is who.”

      The phrase “which is which” could be used in the following instance:
      A person who has been told that there is decaffeinated coffee available could say, “Can you tell me which is which?” if they cannot distinguish between two different pots of coffee.

      The phrase “whose is whose” is used when asking for help in distinguishing which item belongs to which person.
      A person looking at a closet of coats belonging to guests could say, “Can you tell me whose is whose?”

      Who is which, who is whom, whom is who, and which is who are grammatically incorrect.

  18. Sijuade says:

    Please I want to knw which is correct:
    Her blood pressure dropped to a dangerous/dangerously low level.

  19. donna says:

    What to use?

    She made a dress and it came out terrible/terribly.

  20. Mary Rose Sanchez Muñoz says:

    Can you give me more examples and answers when do we use or to put ly? Today please because I really neet it now.

    • We are pleased to answer questions that help our readers improve their grammar and punctuation skills. When you require immediate assistance, you may wish to hire a personal tutor. Nonetheless, here are some additional examples:
      1. C.J. slept sound/soundly after running the marathon.
      2. The jasmine has bloomed and smells very sweet/sweetly.
      3. Our homemade fried rice was real/really tasty.
      4. Come quick/quickly or we will miss our bus.

      1. soundly
      2. sweet
      3. really
      4. quickly

  21. Aaron says:

    absolutely perfect ability or absolute perfect ability which one and why?

  22. Sana says:

    Do we use a ‘-ly’ suffix before or after a verb? for example:-
    1. I would knock quickly on her door.
    2. I would quickly knock on her door.

    Which one of these is right?

    • Both of your sentences are grammatical. It’s a question of nuance whether the writer chooses “knock quickly” or “quickly knock,” though we prefer the sound of “knock quickly.”The Chicago Manual of Styles Rule 5.166 says, “If the adverb qualifies an intransitive verb, it should immediately follow the verb.”

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