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The Fate of ‘-ly’ in English

David Ross wrote the past Thursday:

Alas! The demise of the adverbial form is at hand:

‘NEW! False Friend Riddles. Riddles made up of English sentences that contain a foreign word spelled identical to an English word.’

Methinks “ly” will eventually disappear from English dictionaries, as its dearth is already ubiquitous in the vernacular.

David may be right; denizens of the southern US tier of states often omit this suffix: “Harley, he talks real good” is common enough down there though still considered substandard. In that region, at least, English might be moving the way of German which does not add endings to mark adverbs. Since endings are added to adjectives in that language, omitting an ending is the mark of an adverb.

However, I think something else is at work in the example David cites and I don’t think it is disappearing though, I must admit, it is poorly understood. At the time I was examining it, back in the 80s, no one had even noticed it, let alone researched it. If any work on this aspect of adverbs has been done since, I am unaware of it.

The English adverbial rule seems to be a bit more complicated than “add the suffix -ly to and qualitative adjective”. We know that adverbs are restricted to qualitative adjectives that refer to qualities (can be compared) and not to others. We can not make adverbs out of words like rural, urban, English which can not be compared. But the rule seems to be more complicated than this.

The rule in English seems to be something like this: “Add -ly to any qualitative adjective that does not have a predicate modifier”, i.e. a modifier that must come AFTER the adjective. Here are some examples.

The door shut quickly.
The door shut quick as a flash
NOT: The door shut quickly as a flash.

Bill left subsequently.
Bill left subsequent to Jill’s arrival.
NOT: Bill left subsequently to Jill’s arrival.

The jar opened easily.
The jar opened easy as pie.
NOT: The jar opened easily as pie.

Now, in choosing these examples, I have been careful not to confuse them with simple predicate adjectives like the one in this example:

Bill returned shortly (adverb)
Bill returned short of breath (predicate adjective)

The second sentence here contains an adjective modifying Bill and not the verb returned. It is in a category of predicate adjectives like Bill returned wet, sick, wounded. However, the evidence indicates that in English, if a true adverb has a predicate modifier, a modifier that must come after it, the suffix -ly is regularly, which is to day, grammatically, properly omitted.

Returning now to the example David cited from the alphaDictionary website, I must admit that the same example with the suffix -ly doesn’t sound as bad as the examples I cited above: “…a foreign word spelled identically to an English word.” However, to my ear, the version on the website still offends my grammar organ less. What do you think?

One Response to “The Fate of ‘-ly’ in English”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    1. Flat adverbs are very old in English, not very new.
    2. Adverbs keep their -ly when not used predicatively.
    3. Long adverbs, or adverbs from foreign stock, generally keep their -ly anyway.
    4. -ly also makes adjectives out of nouns, so it probably won’t disappear.

    I come from a flat-adverb area and while I’d say “He runs quick” (or some such), I’d never say “predicative” or “general” in 2 and 3…

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