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Is this correct?

That is a real cool answer.

I learned that that was incorrect, since "real" is an adjective which can describe a noun, e.g. "real answer" but it is not an adverb which can describe an adjective, "real cool". Instead you would have to say:

That is a really cool answer.

Since "really" is an adverb.

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Anybody who claims adjectives cannot be used as intensifiers (as real is here) is just bloodily wrong. – Peter Shor Jul 19 '12 at 2:36
Wow, that's a real success for the prescriptive folks out there: (ngram link). I immediately thought of Chester Himes' "The Real Cool Killers". I don't think he would have dared called his book "The Really Cool Killers". – quadruplebucky Feb 21 '14 at 1:08

5 Answers 5

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English lists 'real' as an adverb also, but qualifies it as 'American English spoken'

Even Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary has the following note for 'real as an adverb:

Most handbooks consider the adverb real to be informal and more suitable to speech than writing. Our evidence shows these observations to be true in the main, but real is becoming more common in writing of an informal, conversational style. It is used as an intensifier only and is not interchangeable with really except in that use.

I, therefore, don't think it's incorrect to say something like "It is a real cool answer" in informal speech and writing! Here, 'real' is an intensifier, that is, an adverb qualifying an adjective!

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I generally dislike "real" as an adverb, but there are some idioms where it's appropriate, like "dance real slow." – Dave Burton Sep 20 '14 at 4:43

"real cool" might be incorrect, but is used in casual conversation.

Even if "really" is "more correct", the Common Errors site mentions:

Really” is a feeble qualifier.
Wonderful” is an acceptable substitute for “really great” and you can give a definite upscale slant to your speech by adopting the British “really quite wonderful”.

Usually, however, it is better to replace the expression altogether with something more precise: “almost seven feet tall” is better than “really tall”.
To strive for intensity by repeating “really” as in “that dessert you made was really, really good” demonstrates an impoverished vocabulary.

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Even better British alternatives are: "jolly good", "spiffing", and "quite marvellous"! – Noldorin Aug 13 '10 at 12:26
+1 for the link to common errors, nice overview, good summaries, and no ads: – Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 12:27
@Noldorin or one I wish I could say but I can't because I'm an American is "spot on", love to hear it though – Edward Tanguay Aug 13 '10 at 12:28
Why does the fact that you're an American mean you can't say "spot on"? I'm a Yank and I use Briticisms all the time (probably The Doctor's influence, but still). – cori Aug 13 '10 at 12:30
"Spiffing" is definitely of the past, (makes me think of Biggles, [Jennings]( and Just William, though I couldn't guarantee that they ever said it.) – Benjol Oct 14 '10 at 4:57

I assume when you say "correct" you mean "standard". And I will presume that when you don't say "standard", you mean US standard English. In which case, the answer is that this is not standard US English. It's common in certain dialects, I believe mainly southern dialects. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not standard.

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"Real cool" sounds fine to me, although it is definitely a bit slangy. Even more slangy would be "mad cool," as in: "That song is mad cool." Also interesting is that mad has become a new count noun, which is normally thought a very closed category. For example, if you say "There's mad people here," that can either mean that there are angry people there or, in slang, there's tons of people here.

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In British Englist, if you say there's mad people here, you mean this. – Benjol Oct 14 '10 at 4:59
@Benjol: probably in american english too, mostly.. it's very slangy – Claudiu Oct 14 '10 at 14:10

A Google Books search indicates that use of "real cool" as an intensifying phrase along the lines of "genuinely [or very] cool" goes back (in colloquial written usage) to at least 1833. From Duty D. Doubikins, "Of Malting Indian Corn, and a Pretty Considerable Lot of Things Besides," in Mechanics Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures (July 27, 1833):

I shan't tax ye more than a dollar and quarter per week for your board, and daughter Becky keeps the house awful clean, though we an't got much help for that part; and you'll have for breakfast boiled pork, and roast pork, and molasses that'll stick your ribs together, and tea and coffee, and oceans of milk—Becky always 'livers the milk herself, because we are short of help—and bread and butter, better nor the best Goshen,—our dog Watch always churns the butter in the cellar, a real cool one I tell ye; but that Watch he's a cruel cute critter, he does'nt like churning; and a prime churn it is, all my own invention, and something like your treadmills, only the wheel's a 'clined plane instead; you shall see it, Mister, when you come.

Similarly, from Laurie Loring Pratt, The Holiday Album for Girls (1875):

“It's too hot!"

“O! it's real cool out under the trees,” urged Lottie.

“I can't go till Carrie comes. There is no fun walking with little girls;” and Kate turned away, taking no more notice of her little sister.

From John Habberton, Four Irrepressibles; or, The Tribe of Benjamin (1877):

"Ben would like the Episcopal Church, wouldn't he, Aunt Agnes?" continued Rob. "I kind of like it too; hopping up and down rests a fellow a lot, and the minister looks real cool and nice with that white dress on."

And from a letter from a six-year-old girl in Harper's Young People (July 11, 1882):

I have a blackboard: I print, and can add and take away. I am in the Second Reader. Mamma and I are going to Maine next month to stay till it is real cool here. There we go out fishing. We pick blueberries. blackberries, and cranberries. I have four little cousins who go from here. We all have the same grandpa and grandma.

And finally (from a much later date), from "The Manager's Page," in To-day's Cinema News and Property Gazette (September 10, 1913):

Why not give to your attendants light, comfortable, white duck uniforms? Make them look clean, neat, and cool; you will then create the impression that your place is a real cool place, a good place to rest and escape the boiling sun rays.

These examples show increasingly wide usage of the phrase in writing by the 1880s. A search of the Library of Congress's Chronicling America database of newspapers has a first occurrence of "real cool" in the Washington, D.C., Evening Star (October 28, 1858):

The last three mornings the weather has been real cool, decidedly winterish, considerable ice forming in many places.

Eight or nine additional unique occurrences of the phrase in the sense of "genuinely cool" (and not "genuine cool") appear in the Chronicling America archives from the 1870s.

Though you wouldn't expect Henry James to have one of his upper-class narrators say "real cool" when he (or she) meant "genuinely cool," the expression has appeared in published writing for more than 180 years, and probably has been a part of spoken English for much longer. Whether it is correct is, in my view, a cultural style question and (therefore) has no absolute yes or no answer.

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