“Drive safe!” Wherein I am again surprised by my “simple tip” research.

When I was home in Wisconsin last weekend, my family helped me brainstorm some ideas for new blog posts. My mom suggested writing one on how many people tend to say “drive safe” when it should really be “drive safely.” Easy enough, I thought. Adjectives and adverbs are different and should be upheld as such.

Then I did my customary “quick research,” and it turns out to be not so simple after all.

I’ll get to the wrinkles at the end, but let’s start with the basics. Adjectives modify nouns and usually answer which, what kind, or how many. Adverbs, most of which end in -ly, modify verbs, adjectives, and even other adverbs. They usually answer how, but sometimes answer where or why. For an excellent summary filled with great examples, see this article on the Purdue OWL site.

Following these strict rules, then, since the root word safe is modifying the verb drive, we should use the adverbial form safely. But as I’m continually learning, “following these strict rules” needn’t always apply.

This article at The Economist describes how “adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever,” citing examples from Shakespeare himself. Apparently it has to do with a quirk of Old English, and it’s especially common with monosyllabic words (like slow, fast, hard, and safe).

I did a Google Ngram search comparing drive safely and drive safe to track their actual usages across time. As you can see in the image below, safely has always been the more common choice, but safe has modestly risen in popularity, especially since 1995.

safe v safely

Keep in mind that Google Ngram only searches books. I suspect if it included more informal language contexts such as blogs or everyday speech, drive safe would appear much more frequently.

Beyond citing longstanding use of adjectives where one “should” have an adverb, the Economist article also argues there is a subtle difference in meaning between the two phrases: “‘Get home safely’ would be telling someone to get home in a safe manner, while ‘get home safe’ would be telling them to arrive home in a state of safety.”

Whether you accept the “been around since forever” argument or the case that the meanings are actually different–and I’m still mulling over whether I do in this instance–it’s clear that the issue isn’t as black and white as first imagined. And as I appreciate more each day I delve deeper into editing, that’s the beauty of our language.

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