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