A Word, Please: People who don’t care about grammar often get it right

Kids choose jackets during Supervisor Katrina Foley's Holiday New Coats for Kids Drive.
Kids choose jackets during the 15th annual Holiday New Coats for Kids Drive at the Boys & Girls Club of Costa Mesa. To “dress warm” can mean the same as to “dress warmly,” writes grammar expert June Casagrande. The former is regarded as a flat adverb.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I’ll dress warm,” I wrote to friends recently in a group email about a get-together on the patio of a local café.

What happened next will sound familiar to every careful user of the English language: I second-guessed my own grammar. “Is ‘warm’ OK instead of ‘warmly?’” I wondered. “How do those rules work again? And, even if I got it right, do I have to worry my friends will think I was wrong? Can I defend my choice? Will I have to?”

If you know people who don’t care a whit about their grammar, don’t look down on them. Envy them. These folks not only sidestep a lot of this anguish, but, ironically, their nonchalance often ensures good grammar. After all, natural language is where grammar rules come from.


Winging it prevents hypercorrection, which is what happens when you work too hard to speak grammatically and, as a result, make a mistake. “Between you and I” is a good example. The more grammatically correct form is “between you and me,” since “between” is a preposition and prepositions take object pronouns. But people trying to be proper use “I,” ironically making their choice less proper than the people who didn’t try so hard.

That goes double for adverbs. Consider the sentence: Slice the onions thinly. To someone who’s fretting over grammar, the adverb “thinly” might seem necessary, since you’re talking about an action: slicing. But you’re not describing an action. You’re describing a noun: the onions.

“One must analyze the sentence,” advises Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Grammar expert June Casagrande writes she has come to hate a usually unnecessary common pattern of words.

Jan. 17, 2024

In this case, he explains, “slice” is a verb, “the onions” is the object of the verb, and the word that follows is the object complement — that is, a word modifying the object. So when choosing between “thin” and “thinly,” you have to understand that you’re describing not a verb but a noun: the onions. And describing nouns is the job of adjectives, not adverbs. Thinly isn’t the manner of slicing. Thin is the state of the onions when you’re done. So the correct form is “slice the onions thin.”

In “I’ll dress warm/warmly,” these relationships aren’t as clear. Yes, I want myself, a noun, to be warm. But you could also consider this a manner of dressing: dress warmly. So in this case, it’s up to the speaker to decide whether she wants to modify the verb, to dress, or the noun, herself. There’s no wrong answer.

Sentences like “I feel bad” are a little different. Here, there’s no object of the verb because this isn’t a transitive verb. It’s a linking verb, whose job is to point back to the subject. This dynamic is clearer in “Jane is happy,” “Joe seems nice” and “The dog acts innocent.” Because these are linking verbs, you need adjectives like “happy” to describe the nouns in the subject. Whereas in “slice the onions thin,” you’re describing a noun not in the subject but in the object.

But even if you were slicing thinly or dressing warmly — if you really meant to describe the action — you could still say “thin” or “warm” if you wanted to. Why? Because of flat adverbs.

Flat adverbs are words used as adverbs in which you just drop the “ly.” “Drive slow.” In this example, there’s no question that you’re describing an action and that you need an adverb to do so. But “slow,” when you use it as an adverb, is an adverb. Yes, even without the “ly” ending. That’s why “drive slow” is grammatical.

Of course, “drive slowly” is more proper. So avoid flat adverbs when they might raise eyebrows. But my email with “I’ll dress warm” wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers, so I stuck with it.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at