Q&A: Sure vs Surely

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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