Grammar Adjectives and Adverbs: Another Look at -ly |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Adjectives and Adverbs: Another Look at -ly

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.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

4 responses to “Adjectives and Adverbs: Another Look at -ly

  1. Stephanie Jackel says:

    I read your “Adjectives and Adverbs” article with great hope, but you didn’t address my #1 question: the phrase, “More importantly” or “Most importantly.”
    Please tell me we don’t need the LY here.

  2. Janice H. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for mentioning in this message the dreadful “I feel badly” line. I wish you had emphasized in a paragraph why it is incorrect. I have had pitched verbal battles with friends and acquaintances about it. I think it is creeping into acceptability in our language. My online Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary has an example that nearly brings me to tears. It is: “11. sorry; regretful: I feel badly about your reaction to my remark.” By the way, have you ever made a point of the use of “home in” on something and the mistaken use of “hone in” that one hears and reads more and more? One more: I fear that the correct use of “lie” and “lay” and their past tenses is a lost cause. Thank you for your attention.

    • says:

      We explained in the examples that bad is correct in the one instance because “I” am not actively using my nose to smell, while in the example where badly is correct, “I” am smelling with my nose. We agree that improper use has become more common, which is why we chose to include bad and badly in this post in addition to including the pair in our Rules 1 and 2 of Adjectives and Adverbs, as well as our blog post Bad vs. Badly.

      If you place “hone in” (including the quotation marks) in the Search box under the Grammar Blog tab, you’ll find that we ranted about its misuse in Word Nerds: Verbal Custodians Trapped in a Time Warp and A House Is Not a Hone.

      As we mention in our Lay, Lie entry in Confusing Words and Homonyms, “These may well be the two most confounding three-letter words in all the language.” Feel free to point folks to our table of correct uses and tenses.

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