Is ill here a noun, and thus the object of speak; is it an adjective, or an adverb modifying speak?


It can be understood either as a noun or as an adverb. Merriam-Webster lists this usage under both adverb and noun in its definition of ill:

adv. 1 c : so as to reflect unfavorably < spoke ill of the neighbors >

noun 3: something that reflects unfavorably < spoke no ill of him >

The Free Dictionary similarly shows it as both:

noun 7. an unfavorable opinion or statement: I can speak no ill of her. (TFD)

adverb 2. ill - unfavorably or with disapproval; "tried not to speak ill of the dead"; "thought badly of him for his lack of concern"

  • Yes; this can be understood as an old-fashioned transitive usage of 'speak'. [Speak] [ill] [of] = [Say] [something bad] tour. Whether the 'transitive' analysis of such structures is all that helpful is another matter. The possibility of 'speak no ill of' surely disqualifies the adverb analysis. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '15 at 21:12
  • @EdwinAshworth Certainly in the case of "no ill" it is a noun. But as stated in the question, it can be either. – Nathaniel is protesting Nov 17 '15 at 21:14
  • OP asks whether it can be; it does not state that it is. But after checking I agree: other examples (eg a non-transitivised usage, 'The right to speak ill' // the similar 'He spoke well of her') argue that the status of 'ill' here is indeterminate. // This sort of problem shows the advantage in treating 'speak ill of' say as a (transitivised) multi-word verb, a single lexeme, and not bothering to try to pin down 'ill' more precisely. However, grammarians have not agreed over the best way to analyse report quote and related structures. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 17 '15 at 21:53

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