I just came across something I'd written a while ago that contained the phrase "follows close behind", and my first thought was that it was incorrect and should be "follows closely behind", i.e. to use an adverb describing how something is following.

The Google Ngram for the two phrases seems to disagree with this instinct, though, with only slight differences between BE and AE, and the shorter phrase must've made it past my inner editor back when I first wrote it... maybe because "close" can also be used as an adverb?

So can both be used interchangeably? Is there a grammatical reason one should be considered "more correct" than the other, or is it just a case of one particular usage of a phrase having become more commonplace for some reason or other?

  • I think first places emphasis on the "behind", i.e. the distance behind the person being followed. The second places emphasis on the verb "follow". Also, the first one makes more sense as an imperative "Follow close behind me!", whereas the second sounds much better as a observation "He followed closely behind".
    – aaa90210
    Jul 7, 2014 at 3:21

2 Answers 2


Close is a perfectly fine adverb. It works especially well with verbs involving position or motion.

Per the OED:

In (or into) a position in which the intervening space is closed up, so that there is no interval; in immediate contact or proximity; as near as can be, very near. Esp. with stand, sit, lie, stick, cling, keep, hold, press, etc., or with vbs. of motion, as come, bring, etc.

Your instinct to use followed close behind is in keeping with these. It’s like asking somebody to stand closer to you. It just wouldn’t sound right the other way in many cases, including that one.

  • +1 for the note on position/motion; a very good point (which my own dictionary neglected to make). Not quite sure what you mean by the stand closer to you example, though - obviously you wouldn't say "stand closerly to you" - nor by "including that one", since "follow closely behind" sounds ok (doesn't it?). Could you please clarify? Jul 7, 2014 at 3:24
  • I'm just guessing that @tchrist meant you would say stand close to me, not stand closely to me.
    – Henry74
    Jul 15, 2014 at 21:50

With all due respect to @tchrist, it is routinely possible for adjectives to serve as complements for verbs, without their needing to become or be construed as adverbs. I was once challenged by a copy-editor for the sentence “If we each live solitary, therefore, some of our needs go unmet.” He or she wanted me to substitute “solitarily.” In rebuttal I invoked both the New Hampshire license-plate motto (“Live Free or Die“) and the opening line of the KJV book of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (“How doth the city sit solitary . . .”).

  • How can you tell the difference between a flat adverb (i.e., an adverb which has the form of the corresponding adjective) and a verb complement? Is there some test? Jul 7, 2014 at 2:30
  • Interesting anecdote, but are you disagreeing with @tchrist's conclusion that "follow close behind" sounds better, or just with the reasoning that it sounds better because close can be used as an adverb? Jul 7, 2014 at 3:32
  • I do not think there is any infallible test, @PeterShor; and Mr. Carpenter, my position is that even if it is possible it is not necessary to read "close" as an adverb. I would favor "follow closely" in the case of someone's parsing someone else's reasoning; but where the application is (literally or otherwise) to physical following, as in Coleridge's "Because he knows, a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread," close applies as much to the follower as to the action of following. Jul 7, 2014 at 14:21
  • As I don't accept that words that modify adjectives or adverbs are adverbs, it's easy to state that 'close' here is a secondary (and here a degree-) modifier. We can now go on to argue about whether 'behind' is an adverb or an intransitive preposition. Jul 8, 2014 at 0:09

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