Q: I am a dental hygienist practicing in New Jersey. For the past 28 years, I have been asking patients to “Open widely, please.” But I have recently been informed by two of my patients that this is incorrect. They argue that the correct usage is “Open wide, please.” Is this true?
A: Your patients are right, though we wonder how they managed to correct you.
Our own dental hygienist is a very engaging person, and we love listening to her. But usually we’re in no position to answer back, with all those fingers and tools in our mouths!
Both “wide” and “widely” are adverbs, with many overlapping meanings, but “wide” is idiomatically correct when you mean completely or fully, as in “Open wide, please.”
A great many adverbs have two forms—they can come with or without the tail (the “-ly”).
The versions without tails are sometimes called “flat adverbs,” and you can spot them at work in phrases like “sit tight,” “go straight,” “turn right,” “work hard,” “rest easy,” “aim high,” “dive deep,” “play fair”—and, yes, “open wide.”
We’ve written about flat adverbs in our book Origins of the Specious as well as on our blog in 2011 and 2006.
The Oxford English Dictionary says plain old “wide” has been used as an adverb for well over a thousand years. The newcomer, “widely,” didn’t show up until the 17th century.
The adverb “wide” was first recorded in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725, and it’s been quite common ever since, according to the OED. (The adjective “wide” is just as old, and can also be found in Beowulf.)
Here’s an example of the adverb from the Coverdale translation of the Bible (1535): “Open thy mouth wyde, & I shal fyll it.” (The reference was not to dental hygiene.)
But “open” isn’t the only verb that’s often modified by “wide.”
The OED has scores of examples, with things springing wide, standing wide, wandering wide, lying wide, shooting wide, floating wide, landing wide, bowling wide, going wide, flying wide, and circling wide.
And we can’t overlook things that are being flung wide, thrown wide, spread wide, carried wide, and blown wide.
Finally, “wide” is an adverb in two very common phrases.
When anything is said to be “wide open,” a phrase dating from the 1300s, “wide” is an adverb (it modifies the adjective “open”).
And when the phrase “far and wide” modifies a verb—which it generally does—“wide” is an adverb then too. “Far and wide” was first recorded sometime before the year 900.
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