The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s look sharp

Q: It’s odd that Pat includes “look sharp” in Woe Is I among her examples of adverbs without “ly” endings. It strikes me that “look” here is an adjective, not an adverb.

A: The paragraph you refer to in Woe Is I is about the use of these “ly”-less adverbs, and it says:

“Adverbs can come with or without ly, and many, like slow and slowly, exist in both forms. Those without the tails are called ‘flat adverbs,’ and we use them all the time in phrases where they follow a verb: ‘sit tight,’ ‘go straight,’ ‘turn right,’ ‘work hard,’ ‘arrive late,’ ‘rest easy,’ ‘look sharp,’ aim high,’ ‘play fair,’ ‘come close,’ and ‘think fast.’ Yes, straight, right, hard, and the rest are bona-fide adverbs and have been for many centuries.”

But “look sharp” may or may not belong with those other phrases, depending on how it’s used.

If it’s being used in the sense of “watch out”—that is, “look sharply”—then “sharp” is indeed a flat adverb.

If it’s being used in the sense of “be quick” or “look alive,” however, “look” is a linking verb, and it’s modified by an adjective, not a flat adverb.

“Look” in this sense is a linking verb because it means to seem or appear to be (not to use one’s eyes). And linking verbs—like “seem,” “be,” “appear,” “feel,” and so on—are always modified by adjectives.

In case you’d like to read more about linking verbs, we’ve written about them on the blog, including posts in 2010 and 2009.

As for the expression “look sharp,” it’s been around since the early 18th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from a story written by Richard Steele for The Spectator in 1711:

“The Captain … ordered his Man to look sharp, that none but one of the Ladies should have the Place he had taken fronting the Coachbox.”

When the phrase was first used, the OED says, “sharp” was an adverb and the phrase had a more literal meaning—“ ‘to look sharply after something,’ ‘to keep strict watch.’ ”

But in later usage, according to the dictionary, “the sense is commonly ‘to bestir oneself briskly,’ ‘to lose no time.’ ”

So “look” here means “to have a certain appearance,” or “to have the appearance of being,” a meaning that Oxford compares with “the similar use in passive sense of other verbs of perception, like smell, taste, feel.”

And “sharp” in this sense, the dictionary adds, is not an adverb but an adjective complement.

For a few more examples, we need go only to Chapter 39 of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), where Kit walks into an oyster shop, “as bold as if he lived there.”

Kit tells the waiter “to bring three dozen of his largest-sized oysters, and to look sharp about it! Yes, Kit told this gentleman to look sharp, and he not only said he would look sharp, but he actually did, and presently came running back with the newest loaves, and the freshest butter, and the largest oysters, ever seen.”

Thank you for calling our attention to this dual usage of “look sharp.” When there’s a fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat will remove “look sharp” from that paragraph to avoid confusion.

(In addition, the hyphen will be removed from “bona fide” in that same paragraph, another problem pointed out recently by an eagle-eyed reader of the blog.)

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