Using adverbs

Adverbs are words or phrases that qualify, limit, modify, or otherwise describe the following types of words:*

  • a verb (an action word), e.g., read carefully, sigh dramatically
  • an adjective (a word describing a noun), e.g., so nervous, rather precarious
  • another adverb, e.g., very softly, somewhat strangely

In many cases, an adverb is based on the same form as the corresponding noun and adjective:

  • beauty (noun) – beautiful (adjective) – beautifully (adverb)
  • sense (noun) – sensible (adjective) – sensibly (adverb)
  • opera (noun) – operatic (adjective) – operatically (adverb)

Some adverbs cannot be formed like their corresponding nouns and adjectives, such as “saintly”. Instead, use an adverb phrase, which is a group of two or more words that functions as an adverb.

The teacher has a saintly face. (adjective saintly describes noun face)
She tends to the children with a saintly air. (adverb phrase with a saintly air describes verb tends)

These are examples of adverbs:

They lived happily. (adverb happily describes verb lived)
They have a very happy life. (adverb very describes adjective happy)
They lived happily ever after. (adverb phrase ever after describes adverb happily)

Adverbs and Words That End in “-ly”

Adverbs often end in an “-ly” suffix (particularly adverbs describing verbs), but be aware that not all of them do; in addition, not all words that end in “-ly” are adverbs.

Using adverbs

Some words that end in “-ly” and which are not adverbs are friendly, stately, and elderly; these are all adjectives. Like the example of “saintly” above, you would use these in adverb phrases, e.g., “She smiled at me in a friendly way.”

The following phrases contain adverbs that do not end in “-ly”:

Do you feel well?
He can run fast for an amateur.
I didn’t eat much today.
Women are under-represented on the council.

One adverb without the “-ly” suffix is over, but people commonly add the suffix to make the word “overly”, as in “Do not be overly anxious.” But saying overly seems as illogical to me as saying underly, fastly, or muchly.

‘Overly’ raises my hackles a bit, but many dictionaries list it as a legitimate word; if you use it, you’re in good company. ‘Overly’ also seems to convey a sense of negative excess that “over” does not have. Below, I have sentences written with ‘overly’ and some alternatives.

Don’t be overly excited.
Don’t be over-excited.

These clothes are overly expensive.
These clothes are extremely expensive.

My parents were overly protective.
My parents were exceedingly protective.

Do You Feel Bad, or Badly?

The cult movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer–who’s pretty funny in it–and Michelle Monaghan) is an amusing film noir spoof that had the prescriptive grammarian in me huffing with delight during a scene where Harry (Downey Jr.) and Harmony (Monaghan) discuss the use of “badly”.

Using adverbs

Kilmer and Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Harry: Clearly I’m interrupting; I feel badly. Let me…what are you drinking? I’ll buy y–
Harmony: Bad.
Harry: Bad? Sorry, I feel…?
Harmony: You feel bad. Badly is an adverb, so to say you feel badly is to say that the mechanism which allows you to feel is broken.
Harmony is right. To “feel badly” is to ‘feel in a bad or poor manner’, e.g., if one’s sense of touch, or ability to have emotions, is faulty. To “feed bad” is to feel sorrowful or regretful, which is what Harry means. But Harry hasn’t quite learned his lesson, as a later conversation with Perry (Kilmer) shows:

Perry: Go. Sleep badly. Any questions, hesitate to call.
Harry: Bad.
Perry: Excuse me?
Harry: Sleep bad. Otherwise it makes it seem like the mechanism that allows you to sleep…
Perry: What, f**khead? Who taught you grammar? Badly’s an adverb. Get out. Vanish.
Poor Harry is confused. Perry tells him to “Sleep badly”, as in “Sleep unpleasantly” or “Have an unpleasant sleep”. Just like it is wrong to say “Sleep unpleasant”, it’s wrong to say, “Sleep bad”. Sleep is used as a verb here, but unpleasant and bad are adjectives, which describe nouns.


*Another class of adverbs is a catch-all for words that do not readily belong in other categories of words, but these adverbs are outside the scope of this post.