Adjectives and Adverbs: Another Look at -ly

Posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2019, at 11:00 pm

Those who study English grammar will eventually review the adverbial ending -ly. GrammarBook last wrote about Adjectives and Adverbs: When to use -ly in October 2007; the post has remained on our website since then to offer guidance on using the suffix.

More than eleven years later, however, we—and you too, perhaps—still often encounter misuse of the ending. For example, how frequently do we read or hear an expression such as “I feel badly about the outcome”? Or how about “I can’t believe he threw the ball that bad”?

Just like golfers who practice their swings even when not on the course, grammarians can keep their skills sharp by periodically revisiting basics.

Let’s therefore return to reviewing how and when to use -ly, mainly by re-examining adjectives and adverbs.

An adjective modifies nouns and pronouns. It can precede or follow the word it describes.

He is a quick cook.
Janet feels strong after working out for more than an hour.

An adverb modifies words or word groups other than nouns or pronouns (e.g., verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, infinitives, phrases, clauses, sentences). It typically indicates time, place, manner, or degree (i.e., when, where, and how). It too can come before or after its related word.

He cooks quickly. 
Janet strongly feels that she should work out for more than an hour.

While the adjective and adverb forms of many words are still mistakenly swapped, to ensure proper usage, we need only remind ourselves of whether we’re describing the subject or the action.

A good way to spot the need for an adjective is noting when the word will serve as a subject complement, most often after a linking verb such as appear, feel, look, taste, or smell.

Antoine looks [linking verb; he is not looking with his eyes] different [subject complement describing Antoine’s physical appearance] after staying up until 4:00 a.m.

If different will illustrate the action, we add -ly to make it an adverb.

Antoine looked [verb; he is looking with his eyes] differently [adverb describing manner of an action] at the clock when he woke—probably because he’d been up until 4:00 a.m.

Let’s consider a couple more examples to reinforce the difference between modifying a subject (adjective) and an action (adverb), especially when a linking verb is involved:

Subject (Adjective): The storm approaching from the east appeared slow [subject complement describing the storm] to the meteorologists.
Action (Adverb): The storm appeared to approach slowly [adverb describing the manner of an action] from the east.

Subject (Adjective): I tend to smell bad [subject complement describing I; I am not smelling with my nose] after toiling in the sun for a day.
Action (Adverb): I tend to smell badly [adverb describing the manner of an action; I am using my nose to smell] when my nose gets stuffed because of my allergies. 

The following two items apply to the mindful use of -ly in writing as well:

Punctuation in a Compound Modifier
We still sometimes see hyphenation in compound modifiers that include an -ly adverb. As a general rule, these modifiers are not punctuated.

Incorrect: the quickly-growing trend, the badly-wounded fighter
Correct: the quickly growing trend, the badly wounded fighter

(Note: Watch for the sneaky -ly word family. It is a noun that would be hyphenated in a compound modifier: the family-favorite scrapbook, the family-friendly event.)

Adjectives That Can Act as Adverbs in Comparisons
Many of us might tend to classify comparison words such as slower, quicker, and smarter as adjectives: Jada is [slower/quicker/smarter] than Josephine.

We’ll then by instinct often use -ly adverbs for comparisons involving actions: Jada runs more slowly than Josephine. Josephine runs more quickly than Jada. Jada dresses more smartly than Josephine.

Many dictionaries now also include adverb definitions for words we would otherwise consider adjectives, permitting sentences such as Jada runs slower than Josephine. Josephine runs quicker than Jada. Jada dresses smarter than Josephine.

Not all comparison adjectives can serve this double duty. If ever in doubt about whether one can act as an adverb, simply consult your dictionary of choice.

Observing these principles of -ly will help us sustain proper usage and, ideally, encourage it among those who read our writing as well.


Pop Quiz

Using what you’ve learned in this article, choose the correct answer in the following sentences.

1. We feel [bad / badly] that we couldn’t make the performance last night.

2. The soup tastes [fresh / freshly] from the pot.

3. His heart beating fast, he looked [quick / quickly] around the room.

4. Anastasia unfolded the [lovingly-stitched / lovingly stitched] quilt.

5. Joshua is acting [calmer / more calmly / (either)] than normal.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. We feel [bad / badly] that we couldn’t make the performance last night.

2. The soup tastes [fresh / freshly] from the pot.

3. His heart beating fast, he looked [quick / quickly] around the room.

4. Anastasia unfolded the [lovingly-stitched / lovingly stitched] quilt.

5. Joshua is acting [calmer / more calmly / (either)] than normal.

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