Friday, April 20, 2012

Common Problems (Part 49 of 50)

Watch those adverb endings. The –ly form of adverbs has changed. In English grammar, we classify words by their function and not by their spelling. Smile can be a noun or a verb as it is in this odd sentence: She smiled at his smile.

Until recent years we wrote firstly but modern, informal usage settles for first. First, he finished his task and then he ate. (Tells us when he ate.) Scholarly writing still holds to the adding of the –ly. For the rest of us, Importantly has become important. Most important, he did his job well. If we don't delete the ending, the writing sounds stilted or pompous.

* First, I want your attention, and second, I want you to smile when I pause. In the past we would have written firstly and secondly.

* Most important, listen to your mother.

Modern usage tends to strip away the –ly on adverbs.


  1. You've got me scratching my head on this one. Isn't it really grammatical usage that is the determining factor? "First" is an adverb or adjective defending on grammatical usage. "He is the first child" or "He drove to town first." "Firstly" is just old-fashioned word that has slipped away from popular usage, as you say.

    I'm not sure I understand your use of "most important" instead of "most importantly." In this grammatical function, wouldn't the usage be adverbial: importantly?

    The Chicago Manual of Style doesn't explain but says both usages are correct (if you have online access:

    I'd love to learn more about this if you could explain more. Thank you.

  2. Think of the difference between a man wearing a tuxedo and jeans. Both are acceptable clothes, but we reserve the tuxedo for formal occasions. (I'd hate to see a bride in a gown and the groom in jeans.)
    It works that way in publishing. If we write a doctoral dissertation or an artiocle in a scientific journal we use formal language. No contractions and words like firstly, secondly,or mostly importantly. (I've noticed that "thusly" seems to have lost the -ly suffix.
    In commercial writing, which is what I assume most of you write, you're the jeans wearers. If you don't use contractions your writing sounds stilted. Wouldn't it sound stiff to write, firstly or secondly (or secondarily)?

  3. Carol used -ly to identify adverbs. Sorry, but that's only one way. A better way is to think of what the words do in a sentence.

    Here's a little piece of doggerel I used when I taught sixth grade:
    To find an adverb this test try:
    ask how or when or where or why.

    As someone pointed out, in English it's how words function and it's not correct that a noun is always a noun. Swim can be a noun (We went for a swim). It can be a verb (obvious) or an adjective as in this sentence: We went to the swim meet.

  4. Thank you, Cec. That helps. I appreciate it.


What are your thoughts?