Q&A: Sure vs Surely

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it’s all about the Irish…

Q: Top of the morning to you!
A: Are you doing some kind of Irish impression to celebrate St Patrick’s Day today?
Q: Well yes, and the appropriate response is “and the rest of the day to you”. Because I’m giving you the top (best) part of the day.
A: Your Irish accent sounds more Pakistani.
Q: Okay okay, enough with that, was just trying to bring the craic to our weekly chats.
A: Actually, bringing crack explains a lot.
Q: Haha. Yes it is pronounced “crack”. But do you know what “craic” means?
A: Tell us.
Q: Well it’s an Irish term of course, and “the craic” is best translated as “fun” – having a social, good time. A laugh with mates. Actually, there is no word in English that entirely sums up the general Saturday-night-outness of it all.
A: Do you have any other Irish terms to share?
Q: To be sure, to be sure, to be sure.
A: Pretty certain that only leprechauns and Pakistani impersonators say that one.
Q: Well, I’m a little green at this.
A: Funny.
Q: I did want to talk about the word “sure” though – in particular, the difference between “sure” and “surely”.
A: Surely, you can’t be serious?
Q: I am, and don’t call me Shirley.
[high five]
Q: I’d like to know which is correct: “I surely hope they have Guinness at this pub” or “I sure hope they have Guinness at this pub”. The second one sounds better, but…
A: The word “sure” is an adjective – used to modify nouns or pronouns. Meanwhile, “surely” is an adverb – modifying verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.
Q: In plain English please?
A: Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer Irish?
Q: Haha.
A: Well, technically your example above should be “surely”. And in British English, it tends to be used, or more likely replaced with “certainly” (or even “really”).
Q: And Americans?
A: Well, as for America – home to bigger St Patrick’s parades than Ireland – common usage has crept in to find that “sure” is often used where “surely” prescriptively should be.
Q: Examples?
A: “It sure is hot outside.” Or “I’m sure looking forward to this parade.” Or “He sure looks like a leprechaun.” None of these are grammatically correct.
Q: Are you sure?
A: Yes. In fact, they do the same with “really” – shortening to “real”. So you end up with “It sure is a real good parade here in Dayton County”.
Q: Cue the banjo music.
A: Indeed.
Q: So should I be careful about how I use the word “sure”?
A: Well in a formal text, using it correctly is a sure thing. But in everyday colloquial writing or speaking, there are bigger grammatical fish to fry. We use it all the time each week.
Q: We sure do.
A: There are a bunch of -ly adverbs that are slowly fading out. Similar to “sure/surely” you have “quick/quickly” and “slow/slowly”.
Q: Any other pointers?
A: The idiom “sure to be” is fine. So “It’s sure to be a busy night in town this evening” makes sense.
Q: So go with what sounds right in casual conversation, but what if I need to pick the right one for something more formal?
A: Then try “surely” and if it makes sense, use it. If it doesn’t, go back to “sure”.
Q: To be surely, to be surely, to be surely!
A: Still sounds Pakistani. Now go and enjoy the craic…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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