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.


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Charlie-Mohonk-May-2016-ok-1024x682.jpg

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


4 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!

  3. Erik

    I’m not sure I agree with your explanation. It’s not true that “nobody spread the servers.” The servers were spread by the diners. They were spread by the occupancy of the room. It may be figurative, but the verb is still acting on the servers. Thinly is wrong simply because thin modifies the state of the noun (the state of the servers relative to the diners), not the verb. If thin modified the verb, thinly would be correct.

  4. ballroomdancer Post author

    Great point, Erik! I just did a Google search, and the Cambridge English Dictionary agrees with you. I’d say this one is a judgment call. Logic (along with a highly respected resource!) is on your side. Other resources prefer “spread thin” because it’s idiomatic.
    One other factor to consider is that dictionaries list “thin” as an adverb (along with “slow” and “bright”). One dictionary I checked gave the example of “cut as thin as possible.” So I think a case can be made for both sides. Thanks for getting my brain working this morning!

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