Q: Here’s a pet peeve of mine. In the last 10 years or so, people have been saying things like “the exact same time” in place of what I think should be “exactly the same time.” (Even Leonard Lopate does it on WNYC.) Please enlighten me if I’m wrong about this.
A: What’s the difference between “exactly the same time” and “the exact same time”? It depends on whom you ask.
The traditional construction is “exactly the same time,” with an adverb (“exactly”) properly modifying an adjective (“same”).
A search of the online Oxford English Dictionary comes up with more than 170 published citations for “exactly the same” and none for “the exact same.” But a bit of googling confirms your observations: “exactly the same,” 266 million hits; “the exact same,” 85.5 million.
Critics of a phrase like “the exact same time” condemn it because “exact” (an adjective) is being used as an adverb (like “very”).
Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.), for example, says “exact same” is merely “a lazy truncation of exactly the same. Although the exact same is acceptable in informal speech, it’s not an expression for polished prose.”
However, there’s another viewpoint.
I would argue that when we say “the exact same time,” we’re using an adjective to modify another adjective for emphasis. This isn’t unusual. We sometimes use adjectives to modify other adjectives (“bright blue sky” … “light green eyes”).
And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that the phrase “exact same” is used by educated speakers and writers; it cites several instances from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and scholarly journals.
You didn’t bring this up, but some critics reject both “exactly the same” and “the exact same” on grounds that they’re redundant. If so, this is a kind of redundancy that’s well established in English usage.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language explains that “same” could be omitted in a sentence like “We’re going to the same hotel that we stayed at last year.” But the grammar guide says “its presence serves to reinforce, to emphasise, the identity.”
While noting that “some of the more authoritarian usage manuals” would condemn “same” as redundant, the authors reject that advice: “There is no empirical basis for proscribing it, however: it is very common and thoroughly acceptable.”
Elsewhere, the Cambridge Grammar notes that noun phrases including “the same” often include modifiers to reflect varying degrees of sameness. Sometime modifiers come after “the” (as in “the very same mistake”), and sometimes before, as with “much,” “almost,” “roughly,” and “exactly.”
I would add “exact” to the list of modifiers that can follow “the” (as in “the exact same mistake”). In my opinion, this usage is acceptable in all but the most formal writing.
If you’d like another authority, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English also says “exact same” is “standard in all but the most formal and oratorical contexts.”