Safe or Safely, Smart or Smartly? All About Flat Adverbs

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I couldn’t help noticing this sign during a recent visit to an amusement park:

Being the grammar nerd that I am, I immediately wondered whether the use of smart and safe was correct.

Correct or not, I don’t take issue with the park’s sign-makers. The parallel structure makes the sign’s message more noticeable and memorable, which would be a good trade-off, I think. A sign that bugs grammar geeks but keeps people safe is a good sign in my book.

But after doing some research, I don’t believe the sign is incorrect either.

Smart and safe in this usage are what we call flat adverbs–adverb that is identical to its adjective form. Prior to the 18th century, flat adverbs were more common than they are today.¹

“…I was horrid angry…”  -Samuel Pepys, diary, 1667

“…the weather was so violent hot” -Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719

“…the five ladies were monstrous fine” –Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 1712

Starting in the late 18th century, grammarians started insisting that adjectives be distinguished from adverbs in form (in order to make English conform more consistently to the rules of Latin), and flat adverbs were more consistently replaced by the -ly adverb form.

But lots of flat adverbs remain in common use. Adjectives like fast,long, and soon, for example, are identical as adverbs (fastly and soonly are not recognized words). A handful of other short words have two competing adverb forms: bright/brightly, close/closely, easy/easily, hard/hardly, loud/loudly, right/rightly, tight/tightly are some examples. Expressions like the following are common and accepted in everyday English:

  • The moon shone bright.
  • Listen close.
  • Take it easy.
  • Don’t try too hard.
  • Do you have to sing so loud?
  • Do it right.
  • Sit tight. 
 Safe and smart belong in this list as well. Some may recommend keeping them to informal contexts, but there’s nothing wrong with common expressions like, “drive safe” or “play smart.”And smartly is odd, as it is often associated with a secondary definition of smart that relates to clothing: “neat or stylish,” as in smartly dressed. It would be unusual to hear someone say, “He prepared smartly for the exam.”
So, this sign is not only clever and memorable, but grammatically acceptable as well.
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¹Samples are from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994. p. 451.
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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. Jennie
    Jennie06-17-2015

    English is a truly hard language to learn. And for me, as for an ESL student, it is always hard to select right word forms. By the way, I cannot accept the word “smartly”

  2. Lena Whitson
    Lena Whitson06-03-2015

    So—am I being unnecessarily harsh in telling my students that the sentence should read: “Listen closely!” or “The moon shone brightly.”? Close and bright just don’t sound acceptable to me. Oh, oh, old school age is showing.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-04-2015

      I don’t know if you are being harsh, but I wouldn’t advise being dogmatic about it. “Listen close” and “shining bright” have been appearing in published, edited works for hundreds of years. In both cases, editors seem to prefer the -ly adverb these days, and you are free to prefer it as well. Just don’t teach them that “close” and “bright” as adverbs is incorrect–just less preferable. 🙂

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