Grammar in Memoirs: What Are Flat Adverbs?

I learn a lot about people’s current grammar concerns from the Facebook page “Grammar Matters,” which I help to admin. Recently someone asked why adverbs are being sloppily replaced by adjectives. Examples:

  • Drive slow.
  • Act quick.
  • Play safe.
  • And the kicker: You did amazing.

The complaint was that the “ly” is missing. The word answers the question “how,” which calls for an adverb. How should I drive? How should I act? How should I play? How did I do? These people wanted the adjectives slow, quick, safe and amazing replaced by the adverbs slowly, quickly, safely and amazingly so that the phrases would read: drive slowly, act quickly, play safely, you did amazingly.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Adjectives vs. Flat Adverbs

“They’re not adjectives,” other members of the page schooled the complainers. “Those are flat adverbs.”

According to the MacMillan Dictionary Blog, “flat adverbs may sound less formal, but grammatically they’re fine.” The blogger explains it further:

“Indeed, flat adverbs have a venerable history. Centuries ago in Old English, they were marked by inflections (usually –e), which were gradually dropped. This left the adverbs resembling adjectives, so –ly was sometimes added to mark them more explicitly as adverbs again. And so we ended up with pairs like bright and brightly, slow and slowly, soft and softly, wrong and wrongly.”

Keep in mind that flat adverbs are also adjectives. You are a “safe driver”—here, safe is an adjective describing the noun driver. The blogger further notes that the pairs are “sometimes interchangeable (drive safe/safely); in other cases their meanings have diverged, as with late and lately, right and rightly, hard and hardly. We might kick a ball hard, but if we hardly kick it we mean something quite different. Sometimes one form appears in certain idioms and expressions while the other form does duty elsewhere.”

Our Approach to Flat Adverbs

At Write My Memoirs, do we think that flat adverbs have earned their place in formal writing and, specifically for our purposes, in memoir writing? As you may know from taking our Writing and Grammar Course, we approach formal writing pragmatically. We apply grammar rules as they are generally regarded by people who make it a point to use proper grammar. That means people who know just enough about grammar but not more than that.

What do we mean by that? Flat adverbs are a good example. Most people who believe they use proper grammar will prefer drive slowly or shine brightly, choosing the traditional adverb safely over the flat adverb safe. So our editors at Write My Memoirs advise writers to mostly avoid flat adverbs. However, if you’re writing dialogue, you did amazing might sound more natural than you did amazingly so, in that case, you might want to choose the flat adverb.

English grammar is always a moving target!