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Wrong and wrongly

Q From Dr Peter Rose, Australia: Correction to a correction. When you wrote in the last issue, “Apologies to Geoff Pullum for spelling his name wrong”, surely you meant “wrongly”?

A The 20 exclamation marks Dr Rose added at the end of his message surely said “Aha! I’ve caught you in an error.” Rob Brennan, also from Australia, questioned my usage in a more restrained way: “Am I being too much of a prescriptivist by suggesting that one may sometimes spell a name wrongly, not wrong?”

Was I doing something wrong? Have I been wrongly accused? These are not easy questions. They remind me that people get confused about when to use many such pairs, not just wrong and wrongly.

One cause is that the form of the two suggests that the first is an adjective and the second an adverb, with wrong only to be used to modify nouns (“this is the wrong colour”) and wrongly to modify verbs (“several men were wrongly detained”). But wrong can also be an adverb. There’s nothing in the least new about this — the Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the thirteenth century onwards.

Robert Burchfield noted in his 1996 revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage that “The subtleties attending the various uses are considerable”, pointing out that the OED devotes five times as much space to adverbial wrong as it does to the notionally correct wrongly.

The quick and easy rule is that wrongly appears before the verb being modified (“the earlier case was wrongly decided”) and wrong after the verb (“he answered the question wrong”). Like most such rules, it’s not even half the story. Style guides and grammars for learners try to give more complete guidance, variously stating that, if the situation is formal, wrongly may be the better choice in either position; if the adverb comes before the verb, wrongly is the only possible form; if the verb is a common short one, such as do, get, have or go, it often forms a set phrase in which wrong is the idiomatic choice (“don’t get me wrong”, “she did him wrong”, “how did he go wrong?”); wrong is preferred after the verb when the intended meaning is “in an unsuitable or undesirable manner or direction” or “incorrect” (as in spelling something incorrectly); if it means “falsely”, then wrongly is the correct form (“rightly or wrongly”, “the award was denied him wrongly”, “he was incapable of acting wrongly”); if it is followed by a “that” clause, then wrongly is used (“she guessed wrongly that he was a teacher”). I suspect that this profusion of advice aiming to codify the eccentricities of English idiom confuses the learner rather than helping.

More generally, English makes much less distinction between adverbs and adjectives than the more elementary grammar books would have us believe. It might be better to class such words under the general title of modifier (although contemporary grammarians reserve this word for a different phenomenon); often the form of the modifier doesn’t match the rule we learned in childhood about adding -ly to make adverbs. Lots of words that look like adjectives can act as adverbs, particularly in idiomatic English: “try hard”, “turn sharp left”, “hold tight”, “he had spread himself too thin”, “the desk was piled high with files”, “he burrowed deep into his memory”, “leave it as late as you can”, “the ships were wide apart”, “teach him to hold his pen right”. They’re sometimes called flat adverbs.

In his article entitled unidiomatic -ly, Robert Burchfield wrote that “Standard speakers for the most part instinctively know which form is appropriate in a given context” but added “To regard the addition of -ly as the only way of turning an adjective into a word meaning ‘in the manner of, after the style of, etc.’, is to fall far short of understanding how the language works.”

To sum all this up, in the phrase “spelling his name wrong”, wrong is idiomatically correct but wrongly is acceptable, though formal and less common.

Page created 7 Jul. 2012

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Last modified: 7 July 2012.