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A Word, Please: A great guide to using adverbs well

Ned in Albany had a question about the phrase, used in this column, “that works out great.” He asked, “Isn’t ‘great’ an adjective and what’s it modifying here? Shouldn’t it be ‘well’ in uncorrupted English?”

Well, no. Adverbs are subtler beasts than most of us are taught. We tend to think of them offshoots of adjectives. “Quick” is an adjective whose job is to modify a noun. “Quickly” is its adverb equivalent and its job is to modify verbs.

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Often, that works like a formula. Add “ly” to an adjective and you have an adverb. But not always. If you’re fast at typing, you don’t type fastly. If you’re right about how to cut a pineapple, you don’t cut it rightly. If you wear ugly clothes, you don’t dress uglyly.

That’s because sometimes adverbs are identical to their corresponding adjectives. “Fast,” for example, is both an adjective, “a fast car,” and an adverb that can modify a verb, “He drives fast.”

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And because the English language never misses an opportunity to mess with you, plenty of adjectives end in “ly.” Deadly, cowardly, costly, shapely, lonely, worldly and on the list goes. Even “daily” and “nightly,” which usually refer to actions, are adjectives. Think: your daily routine or the nightly news.

Perhaps the oddest of the bunch is “well.” It’s the rough adverbial equivalent of the adjective “good.” “You’re a good driver because you drive well.” You’d think this job would be handled by “goodly,” which is a real word. But it’s an adjective, usually meaning “large in number,” as in “a goodly amount.”

It can also mean attractive, but you don’t hear that use very often.

“Well” isn’t just an adverb. It’s also a noun (a hole in the ground where you get water) and a verb (think of tears welling up in someone’s eyes) and (here it comes) an adjective. Know how some people are sticklers for saying, “I’m well,” when you ask, “How are you?” They’re using the adjective form, which means “in good health.”

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Even these sticklers confuse the matter. I’ve heard quite a few people insist that the reason you say “I am well” is because “well” is an adverb and that using its adjective form, “good,” would change your meaning. “I am good” does indeed suggest a meaning different from “I am well.” But that’s not why “I’m well” is proper. In this case, “well” is an adjective.

These people confuse “How are you?” with “How are you doing?” The first asks you to describe a noun. The second asks you to describe a verb. So “I am doing well” uses a different “well” than “I am well” does.

But when we return to Ned’s question, none of this matters. Remember, he asked about “That works out great.” We tend to think of “great” as a shade of “good.” But they’re two different words. “Well” is the adverb form of “good,” not “great.” Yes, “great” has an adverb form: “great.” So if you’re great at math, you do math great.

Ned asked what “great” modifies in the sentence. The answer: the phrasal verb “to work out.” It can do that because it’s an adverb.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: What about “greatly”? Good question. Remember all those adjectives that end in “ly” — cowardly, costly and so on? Well, it’s not one of those. It’s an adverb, just like “great.” But it has a specialized meaning.

In modern English, it usually means “to a large extent or degree,” as in, “He greatly exaggerated his credentials.” That makes it a little different from the adverb “great,” which more closely hews to the adjective “great.”

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