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.
Well, thank you so much. I can sleep now! I just bought my new lawn mower from Honda, and right on the on the box in big bold letters the words taunted me, “MOW SMART”. Then sitting on the conference table in my office the magazine titled “dig different“ (Lowercase to boot!) I’m in construction so topics like “digging differently” I certainly have an interest. But it’s difficult to open that magazine that can’t even punctuate nor use correct forms of adverbs. But wait, today I learned that those are just flat adverbs! Phwew. Now I can mow my lawn, and I have a new magazine to read.
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”
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.
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. 🙂