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To -ly or not to -ly

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be “don’t let anyone tell you differently,” not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after some verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective inevitably with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the way it is being told,” i.e. in a whisper, in a letter, or some other way. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different.”

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (that she had been kept late). As you can see, we often supply a subordinate clause for clarification.

Without the subordinate clause the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which is undressed, the salad or Mary. So, let’s not give up this distinction: we need all the laughs we can get.

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