Hard vs. Hardly – Totally different words!

One student of mine said: They are working hardly.

I see students misuse “hardly” this way fairly often, so let me explain this word in more detail.

  • Hard is an adjective.
  • Hardly is an adverb.
  • Though these two words look very similar, hardly has nothing to do with hard. The meanings are totally different. They have no relationship with each other.

Learn from these examples:

  1. We never say “work hardly”. This phrase has no meaning in English.
  2. He works hard. ==> He uses great effort when he works.
  3. He is hard-working. Same meaning as #2.
  4. He can hardly work. ==> He almost cannot do any work at all.
    Perhaps he is injured or very old, so he cannot do much work.
    Hardly means “just barely” or “only to a very small degree”.
  5. We do hard work. ==> We do difficult work, work that is not easy to do.

We have a funny greeting when two old friends meet:

Lee: Hi, Eng. Working hard or hardly working?

Note that these two phrases are opposite in meaning!
I am asking him if he is working with great effort or doing no work at all.

Eng: You know me, Lee. I don’t believe in work. I try to avoid it at all costs.

Note that in this dialog, the Engineer has indicated that he is working very little. If serious, then perhaps he has lost his job but is embarrassed to say so. If joking, then he is actually working his butt off (working hard).

To know which meaning the Engineer is really giving, Teacher Lee must know the Engineer’s personality very well. (and perhaps also know his personal circumstances)

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