Flat adverbs

“Flat Adverbs” are defined by the OED as follows: “Not distinguished by a characteristic ending, as an adverb which has the same form as an adjective or substantive, or a substantive used as an adjective” (OED, s.v. flat, adj., adv. and n3) .  The OED adds that they “often go back to an Old English form ending in -e”.

An interesting account of flat adverbs as a usage problem is given in a Youtube film called “Merriam-Webster Ask the Editor – Drive Safe: In Praise of Flat Adverbs.

Nevalainen (2008:294), citing an article by Tagliamonte and Ito (2002), notes that “the influence of linguistic prescriptivism on adverb form [i.e. the variation between flat adverbs and adverbs marked by –ly] was not so strong in the United States as it was in England”.

Jane Austen, too, used flat adverbs. On the first page of Lefaye’s edition of her letters (OUP, 3rd ed. 1995) we find as many as four of them:

  • you are very near of an age
  • we had an exceeding good ball last night
  • We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage
  • but not near so handsome as I expected.

The term itself is not as old as that: the quotations in the OED illustrate suggest that it originates from the 1870s. And given the fact that flat adverbs are often criticised today, it won’t be hard to find any postdatings which the OED will be able to use in their revision process by the time they reach F. Quotations will be welcome.

1871    J. Earle Philol. Eng. Tongue vii. 361   The Flat Adverb is simply a substantive or an adjective placed in an adverbial position.
1901    J. B. Greenough & G. L. Kittredge Words (1902) 199   Not all of our ‘flat adverbs’ actually go back to such  forms.
1965    Eng. Stud. 46 356   The ‘flat-adverbs’ (like e.g. fast).



Nevalainen, Terttu (2008), Social variation in intensifier use: constraint on -ly adverbialization in the past?, English Language and Linguistics 12/2, 289-315.

Tagliamonte, Salli A. and Rika Ito (2002), Think really different: Continuity and specialization in the English dual form adverbs, Journal of Sociolinguistics 6, 236-266.

This entry was posted in usage features and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s