Be Safe When Using Flat Adverbs


If you care about improving your writing, eventually you’ll find yourself pondering adverbs. While their over-use is a sure sign of poor writing, no one would suggest trying to ditch them altogether.

When striving to improve your adverb usage, lack of care or understanding may cause you to stumble over using flat adverbs. And attempting to correct someone who properly uses a flat adverb will make you look less-than-knowledgeable, as well as rude.

So what are these tricky flat adverbs?

The “-ly” problem

Adverbs are modifiers—they add detail. They can modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They also have other uses we won’t bother with here. One of the few grammar lessons that many adults remember from elementary school is that adverbs end in -ly. This is a good way to recognize an adverb, but flat adverbs are those that don’t end in -ly.

Early Modern English featured loads of flat adverbs, but the list of those still in use has shrunk significantly. Examples include:

high, fast, slow, hard, easy, sure, bright, wrong, right, near, late, safe, and soon.

Some have -ly companions, like slow with slowly, but some, like fast, and soon, do not. You might prefer “Drive slowly” to “Drive slow” (I do) or “Sit tightly” to “Sit tight” (I do not), but either is correct. You could not, however, correctly use, “Move fastly,” or, “we’ll be there soonly”. Mastering flat adverbs is not a matter of memorizing a rule (sorry, lawyers) but more a matter of recognizing proper usage. And that only comes with time and lots of reading and speaking and listening, or checking usage, grammar or style guides. I rely more on the former, but you may work under a style guide, or edit one.

Flat-out fun

Flat adverbs sound different as they are somewhat uncommon. Used cleverly, they can provide a bit of a jolt to the reader’s eye or listener’s ear. For this reason they are often used in advertising to link one’s mind to a product or service. You’ve probably seen and remember these:

Eat Fresh.

Think Different.

Go big (or go home).

None would be considered proper usage, but advertisers don’t care, and we don’t seem to care, either, as we expect mangled usage and “creative” spelling in advertising.

But as a lawyer you’ll do well, when speaking, to not fear the flat adverb, and to not correct others who use them. When writing, use all adverbs with care and efficacy.


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