Common Errors in Spoken English: Speaking Correct: Part Two

How to Speak Correct(ly)

by Owen Fourie

It is necessary to read Part One to get the benefit of this conclusion to the study of -ly adverbs and flat adverbs and their use.

As we begin Part Two, let me remind you of this example given in Part One:

  • Chloe looked gratefully at her new painting.
  • Did Chloe actively use her sense of sight? Yes. How did she actively look at her painting? Gratefully, an adverb modifying looked.

Adverbs and the physical senses

To explain this point, note that if verbs relating to the physical senses (look, feel, smell, etc.) describe the active use of a particular physical sense, the answer to “how?” will be an adverb.

To illustrate this, which word should be used in the following sentences?

  1. Emma looked calm/calmly after her car was towed away.
  2. Emma looked calm/calmly at her damaged car.

In the first sentence, the verb looked serves as a copula or a linking verb. It is not an action verb here. It links the subject, Emma, to the information about her, the adjective calm. This is how she appeared: Emma looked calm after her car was towed away.

In the second sentence, the verb looked is used as an action verb. It speaks of the action of the subject, Emma, as she used her sense of sight: Emma looked calmly at her damaged car. How did she look at the car? Calmly, an adverb modifying the action verb looked.

Good versus Well

Let’s assume that Chloe’s friend has improved his speaking in English. Which word would you choose to describe his progress?

  • Chloe’s friend speaks English good/well.

How does Chloe’s friend speak English? Well, an adverb modifying speaks.

While some would say he speaks good, this is informal usage, and it is unacceptable in formal speaking and writing. Essentially, good is an adjective, not an adverb.

Not all adverbs end in -ly

The word well is a reminder that there are adverbs that do not end in -ly.

There are adverbs

  • of time (after, before, now, soon, today);
  • of place (everywhere, here, inside, outside, somewhere);
  • of degree (not, quite, rather, too, very);
  • of comparison (little, less, least; much, more, most);
  • and other kinds, but this is enough to show you that not all end in -ly.

Some adjectives end in -ly

Not all words ending in -ly are adverbs. There are words such as elderly, friendly, and lovely. These are adjectives.

Shakespeare used adverbs and flat adverbs

In the plays of the renowned William Shakespeare (1564–1616), we see adverbs and flat adverbs. Note his use of plain and plainly:


“To tell you plain, I had rather lie in prison” is the response of Lady Grey to King Edward IV who has said “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee.” (From the Third Part of King Henry the Sixth: Act III, Scene ii)


“… now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass …” says Feste, the Clown, to Orsino, Duke of Illyria. (From Twelfth Night: Act V,  Scene i)


Perhaps Shakespeare’s choice of adverb or flat adverb was dictated by metre (meter)—the rhythm and the number of syllables. Perhaps a Shakespeare analyst will tell us if this is so in these instances.

When I ask “how?” I prefer to hear and read -ly adverbs for the answer, but it seems that there might be times when teachers should not be harsh judges if a flat adverb is used.

This should make some students “exceeding glad.” (Daniel vi:23 in the old King James Version of the Bible–1611)


Have you used flat adverbs when you should have used -ly adverbs? Tell us about the reactions you have received to your flat-adverb usage. Tell us about the reactions you have received to your -ly-adverb usage? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

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