The Grammarphobia Blog

Drive friendlily?

Q: After attending a business conference in San Antonio, I rented a car and did a little sightseeing. What’s with all those “Drive Friendly—The Texas Way” signs? Shouldn’t it be “friendlily”? Don’t they teach grammar in the Lone Star State?

A: We’re not familiar with the state of grammar education in Texas, but the wordsmiths at the Texas Department of Transportation got this right.

“Friendly” has been both an adverb and an adjective since the Middle Ages. In fact, “friendlily” is the klutzy latecomer— it didn’t arrive on the scene until the 17th century. For most of us, it never really did arrive.

Although “friendly” has the telltale mark of most adverbs— an -ly ending—it’s widely considered just an adjective.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we discuss this and other misconceptions about adverbs. We’ve also had several items on the blog about adverbs without -ly tails, including a posting back in 2006.

We often hear from people who get bent out of shape when they see a “GO SLOW” sign on a suburban street.

“What’s happening to adverbs?” they complain. “Why is everybody using adjectives  instead? Is  the -ly disappearing from English?”

The handwringers apparently believe that an adverb, a word that modifies a verb, has to end with -ly. As far as they’re concerned, “slow” is an adjective, “slowly” is an adverb, and never the twain shall meet.

The truth is that adverbs can come with or without tails. The ones without -ly (they’re called simple or flat adverbs) were seen more often in the past, though they may be making a revival now, if our mail is any indication.

Many adverbs, like “slow” and “slowly,” exist in both forms. In such cases, usage experts generally recommend the -ly version for formal writing, but there are lots of exceptions.

No one would insist, for instance, on “lately” in a sentence like “The plane arrived late and we missed our connection.” (“Lately,” as you know, means recently, not tardily.)

The most respected writers use phrases like “sit tight,” “go straight,” “turn right,” “work hard,” “rest easy,” “aim high,” “dive deep,” “play fair,” and “think fast.”

Yes, “straight,” “right,” “hard,” and the rest are bona fide adverbs, and they’ve been adverbs since the Middle Ages.

So why do so many people believe that an adverb must end in -ly? Here’s some history, from Origins of the Specious:

“We’ve had adverbs with and without the -ly (or archaic versions of it) for more than a thousand years. In Old English, adverbs were often formed by adding -e or -lice to the end of adjectives. Over the years, the adverbs with a final e lost their endings and the -lice adverbs evolved into the modern -ly ones. Take the word ‘deep.’ The Old English adjective diop had two different adverbs: diope and dioplice, which eventually became the modern adverbs ‘deep’ and ‘deeply.’

“Sounds simple, right? So how did things get confusing? You guessed it— the Latinists strike again. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they insisted that adjectives and adverbs should have different endings in English, just as they do in Latin. So these busybodies began tacking -ly onto perfectly legitimate flat adverbs, and preferring -ly versions where both kinds existed.

“The lesson? Next time you start to pounce on someone for using an adverb without -ly, go slow. And go to the dictionary.”

Check out our books about the English language