When I was young, Schoolhouse Rock‘s “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” was my introduction to adverbs. “Bring along your old adjectives,” the blond announcer said, “like slow, soft, and sure. We’ll fit ’em out with an -ly attachment and make perfectly good adverbs out of ’em.” It seemed pretty simple.
But as my knowledge grew, that simplicity gradually faded away. Not all adverbs, it turns out, end with -ly. And not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. And those adjectives that end in -ly can be particularly problematic when you try to “fit ’em out with an -ly attachment.” Does English even let us do that?
Does the queen wear her crown queenlily? Do angels sing heavenlily? Can a person weep melancholily? If this post turns out to be quite lovely, does that mean it was lovelily written?
When faced with one of these odd adverbs, you have four basic ways to deal with it:
1. Go with it. Many of these words are serviceable adverbs in spite of how awkward they seem — though the more syllables they pile up, the odder they sound. Adjectives in which the l in the -ly is part of the word stem and not part of an adjective ending seem to be the least objectionable: holily, jollily, sillily.
However, because these words are so uncommon, they might trip up readers, causing them to stop and wonder, “Is that really a word?” When that happens, the medium has gotten in the way of the message as the reader focuses on the words instead of on what the words hope to communicate. Smoothing over such reading speed bumps is often part of what copyeditors are paid to do. If the text is oddity-averse, one of the other options might be better.
2. Use one of the wordier adverb-avoidance tactics we usually try to avoid. You know the tactics I mean: “in a lively manner,” “with a kingly disposition,” “in a sprightly way.” If you’re like me, you instinctively twitch at such constructions, though they can be easier to read than livelily, kinglily, and sprightlily.
3. Replace the adverb with a less problematic synonym. Use prettily instead of comelily, or divinely instead of heavenlily (which, face it, sounds like a lovely flower). The English language is large and variable enough that a good synonym is never too far away.
4. Let the adjective form ride as an adverb. This is less radical than it sounds. Some -ly adjectives — early, daily, and hourly, for instance — have been long established as adverbs as well. Other adjectives can slip through as part of compound descriptor, but without the hyphen that would usually join them; consider, for example, a swooning ingenue’s ghastly pale skin.
English, malleable and democratic as it is, has, through thoughtful editing and repetition, allowed more adjectives to spill over into adverbhood than you might think. Fowler used the phrase “a kindly thought, and kindly uttered” as an example of an adjective “allowed to pass as an adverb” — meaning that he believed kindly was only an adjective, but that using it adverbially in this way was unobjectionable. Today, dictionaries include an entry for kindly as an adverb without reservation. Far from “being allowed to pass as an adverb,” it has been wholly accepted. So it is with timely, beastly, and others.
So you have a choice, and as always, the best solution is based on more than just grammar. Copyeditors should consider the purpose, style, voice, audience, and intent of a text along with its grammar to craft the sentences that are best for authors and their readers.