“The flat adverb is all but universal with the illiterate.” John Earle, the man who coined the term flat adverb, had this to say about flat adverbs in his book Philology of the English Language. Why Earle had such a disdainful view of flat adverbs, no one is quite sure.
Flat adverbs have been a part of the English language since its earlier development. Although they have come under attack throughout history, one thing has always remained — adverbs are as grammatically correct as any other part of speech.
Whether you are learning English as a second language or are a native speaker, flat adverbs are one of the most interesting grammatical concepts you will encouter.
Flat adverbs (also known as bare adverbs and simple adverbs) are a special type of adverb. These adverbs drop the -ly suffix, and will use the adjective form — only it will be used as an adverb.
So flat adverbs are adverbs which have the same form as their adjective counterpart. So, they look the same! The only way to tell the difference is to find what the word it is modifying.
It’s easy to be confused about the difference between adjectives and adverbs. After all, they look the same every so often. What is different about them?
First, let’s begin by talking about the difference between an adjective and adverb so that we know where to start.
So let’s look at this in practice. Read the following sentence and locate the nouns:
The man carried the red bag through the store.
Now, we’ll follow the steps listed above. First, what are the nouns in the sentences?
Man, bag, store
Great, now that we have those, let’s look at the words surrounding them.
The/carried — man
Red/through — bag
the — store
Now we will ask ourselves the three questions about adjectives to determine if there are any. We know that ‘the’ is an article, and ‘carried’ is the past tense form of the verb carry. So, we know there are no adjectives with the nouns ‘man’ and ‘store’.
However, when we look at the word bag, we can answer the first adjective question, “What kind?” What kind of bag is it? It’s a red bag. Red is the adjective.
We can do the same for an adverb, let’s locate the verb in the following sentence:
The woman carried the wood quickly.
Using the questions listed above for adverbs, we can locate the adverb.
How did she carry the wood? — Quickly
When did she carry the wood? — Unknown
Where did she carry the wood? — Unknown
To what extent did the woman carry the wood? — Unknown
Why did the woman carry the wood? — Unknown
So, the adverb is quickly because it answers the How? question.
Now that we have some understanding of the differences between adjectives and adverbs, let’s learn some history about flat adverbs.
We can look back to Old English to understand where this all started. As we know, most adverbs use the -ly suffix. This came from the endings -lice and -e in Old English. Of the two, the -e suffix was the most common for adverbs.
As time went on, and English began to change, the vowels weakened, and some disappeared altogether. Many adverbs that had the -e ending dropped the suffix but continued to be used as adverbs.
At the same time, the -ly suffix became more common and accepted as the “correct” form for an adverb. English speakers still used flat adverbs, but they were not as common as their -ly counterparts.
Then in the 18th century, grammarians began to try to eliminate flat adverbs — citing their use as incorrect in English grammar. They claimed that adverbs have an -ly suffix — no exceptions.
Fortunately, the English language prevailed and flat adverbs remained. Now, they are used in daily life, as well as different advertising slogans (which we will discuss below).
Note however that in formal writing, flat adverbs should be avoided when possible.
Okay, now that we understand the difference between an adjective and an adverb, as well as the history of the flat adverb, let’s see flat adverbs in action.
Here are some common examples with their -ly counterparts:
Quick → quickly
Close → closely
Kind → kindly
Slow → slowly
Seems simple enough, right? But some forms don’t have an equivalent -ly ending. This is where things can get confusing. Let’s take a look at this passage:
“The man drove fast in his car. He hadn’t seen the sign that said, ‘Drive slow’, nor did he see the police car that was sitting on the side of the road. However, he did see the cop car’s lights shining bright in his rearview mirror.”
Can you figure out what the flat adverbs are in those sentences? If you guessed fast, slow, and bright then you’re correct. Excellent work!
However, these words are a bit different. It may not be obvious, but there is a key difference between them.
Let’s take the example used above again, but let’s change some things.
“The man drove fast in his car. He hadn’t seen the sign that said, ‘Drive slowly’, nor did he see the police car that was sitting on the side of the road. However, he did see the cop car’s lights shining brightly in his rearview mirror.”
You may have noticed these changes, or you may not have. Largely, they don’t change the meaning of the sentence. The changes were:
slow → slowly
bright → brightly
These are examples of bare adverbs that have an alternate -ly ending. The addition of -ly to these adverbs does not usually change the original meaning of the sentence. Many people would argue that it makes it sound more natural.
However, both uses are correct — no matter what grammarian sticklers tell you.
With the -ly endings, though, you want to be cautious. Simply by adding -ly, the entire meaning of the word could change. Let’s look at an example:
“He shot near all the people.”
This sentence makes sense, right? The man shot something in proximity to a group of people. Pretty simple. However, let’s add -ly to the flat adverb in this sentence:
“He shot nearly all the people.”
This means something very different and changes the entire meaning of the sentence. This means that the man shot almost all the people.
So, it is critical to pay attention to the meaning of the adverb you’re using, and how it can change the meaning of the sentence.
Now, you may have figured out what the bare adverb in that passage that does not have an alternate ending is. That’s right, it’s fast.
It’s perfectly acceptable to say that you, or someone else, does something fast. In today’s world, it seems like everything we do is fast.
He runs fast.
She does homework fast.
The dog ate the bone fast.
However, what about if we add -ly here? How will this sound?
He runs fastly.
She does homework fastly.
The dog ate the bone fastly.
This will cause a reaction as if you have an extra head growing out of your body. It just doesn’t sound right. So, there are going to be some adverbs that you cannot add -ly, and it still is grammatically correct.
You could argue that quick or quickly would be better words to use in each of those sentences, but how it’s written is just fine.
In addition, you will find that irregular comparative adjectives make great flat adverbs. We don’t need to add -ly to them, so we can just keep them in the same form they’re already in.
Some examples include:
You can also use their comparative forms:
Use these as an adverb in a sentence, and you’re still following the (often confusing) grammar rules of English.
Let’s look at an example of using these as an irregular comparative adjective and using them as flat adverbs.
I like pie more than cake.
But, pudding is my least favorite.
My mom thinks that cheesecake is better than pie.
as flat adverbs:
My best sport, football, was the one I played least.
Which one do you like more?
Teachers influence their students most.
Numerical adjectives can be used as flat adverbs as well. These include ordinal numbers like:
Second, third, fourth, fifth…
Here are some examples:
They cooked first.
Who placed third?
The Tigers play first, and your team plays last.
Flat adverbs can be confusing when just talking about them, so let’s see some real-world examples that can help you get started using them.
“She was so beautiful. I asked her on a date, but she turned me down flat.”
“The doctor asked me to lie down flat on the table.”
“His speech fell flat, no one in the audience clapped.”
“This food tastes different. I don’t know why.”
“You look different. Did you lose weight?”
“Your voice sounds different. Are you sick?”
“He smelled clean. He took a shower a bit ago.”
“Your car looks clean. Did you wash it?”
“Did you edit this video? It looks clean.”
“Your food is gone?! You ate quick.”
“Think quick! We’re almost out of time!”
“Be quick. Your grandparents are almost here.”
“Drive slow in this area, it’s a school zone.”
“You should speak slow, so they can understand you.”
“Throw the ball slow, so I can catch it.”
“Be careful, and drive safe.”
“Have fun and be safe at the concert.”
“Call me and let me know that you arrived safe.”
“You will go far in life.”
“Sarah drove far from her home.”
“We won’t run far today. I have to get home for dinner.”
“He kicked the ball hard.”
“John studied hard for his test.”
“Fight hard. You can win this match.”
“The doctor told me to inhale deep, then exhale slow.”
“I will dive deep in the ocean today. We’re looking for interesting fish.”
“Go deep. John is going to throw you the football.”
“Keep close, it’s dark in this cave.”
“The magician appeared close to us. It was a remarkable magic trick.”
“Look close, you will see the difference between the paintings.”
Apple, one of the most well-known computer companies in the world, used flat adverbs in their campaign. A campaign slogan that many may remember if you were alive from 1997-2002.
Everyone knows and probably has a Facebook. A famous motto that Facebook used among their teams until 2014 contains a flat adverb:
“Move fast and break things”
A cat favorite around the world, Meow Mix’s most famous slogan is used to help everyone remember what to buy their cats.
“Tastes so good, cats ask for it by name”
Subway still uses this slogan today, and it’s written on the paper they wrap their subs in. This slogan uses a flat adverb:
Flat adverbs are used in another slogan that is still used today and one you will see in any advertisement for Target.
“Expect more. Pay less.”
One of the most famous ads from Volkswagen and aimed at the growing wealth in the United States in 1959.
Walmart displays this common ad that you have surely heard before. It is even written on their stores. Had you noticed that it contains a flat adverb?
“Save Money, Live Better”
Flat adverbs can be a difficult concept to understand at first because they’re so easy to confuse with adjectives. The key is to pay attention to what part of speech the word is modifying, which will help you figure it out much faster.
This is not simple, and it takes time to learn. However, with some practice and the help of this article, you will be a master of flat adverbs in no time.