Spread Thin or Thinly?

Early this month, Charlie and I spent several blissful days at Mohonk Mountain House near New Paltz, New York. One night we noticed that the restaurant (which is wonderful, by the way!) was exceptionally busy. “The servers are spread thin,” I said.

And then I had doubts. Charlie saw me struggling and offered “spread thinly” as a better option. We spent a few minutes discussing peanut butter and other things you spread (blankets, fertilizer, and gossip). I talked vaguely about copulative verbs that take adjectives rather than adverbs (“He looks happy today” versus “He looks happily today”). And then we gave up.

Back in our room, I Googled “spread thin or spread thinly” and quickly found the answer. When a verb leads to a result, use an adjective. (In plain English, ditch the -ly ending.)

Here’s an example:

Soon the program grew too large for its headquarters.

The program didn’t grow anything! Nobody’s thinking about soil and a watering can. What you’re really saying is that the program became too large. (A grammarian would say that grew in this sentence is a copulative verb that takes a predicate adjective.) So you would say that the program grew too large (not largely).

Here’s another verb that can take an adjective instead of an adverb (an -ly word):

He went crazy.

The sentence means he became crazy. It’s very different from “He went crazily out the door.”

So let’s go back to that restaurant. Nobody spread the servers. They became thin (sparse) because the dining room was so busy that night.


Charlie and a rainbow trout at Mohonk (we threw it back, of course!)


2 thoughts on “Spread Thin or Thinly?

  1. Magjs

    I enjoyed hearing about your search for an explanation for “spread thin.” Another way of approaching the question is to understand that the verb “to be” is left out of the sentence. “The waiters were spread (so as to be or become) thin.” “Became” means “came to be.” Copulative verbs (a new term for me) like “to be” or “to feel” are like equal signs. The modifiers refer to the subject, not the verb. Why some very educated people insist on saying “I feel badly” is beyond me. Unless they all have damaged fingertips.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    People learned a small amount of grammar (“Use -ly with a verb) and stopped there. I’m on a cruise right now. At dinner the other night, two people said the soup tasted “differently” from what they expected. (I was polite and said nothing.) BTW – your explanation about “spread thin” is better than mine! Thanks, Margaret!

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