Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Working Hard or Hardly Working? - a cliche worth teaching, and some grammar to go with it

I didn’t think that anyone used that line outside of comedies about stereotypical offices. But a few years ago, there was was this one guy who worked in the Sales department at my school. EVERY time I bumped into him at the coffee maker (we didn’t have a water cooler), I knew what was coming:

“Working hard or hardly working?” He would ask and grin as though it were the first time he’d made that zinger.
“Uh… Just normal working, I guess,” I would stammer, because how are you supposed to respond to that question? Is it rhetorical?

I hadn’t thought about that guy in a while, but an advanced student of mine recently made a mistake that reminded me of his favorite one-liner. On an essay about women in the workplace, the student wrote, “100 years ago, many women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays women hardly work.” 

I love that mistake because she was pretty much saying the opposite of what she meant, and she have me a great example to help illustrate the difference between “hard” and “hardly.”

Teaching Hard vs. Hardly

If your student makes the hard/hardly mistake, here’s what you need to know:

1- “Hard” can be an adjective or an adverb.

  • One meaning of the adjective is “difficult.”
    • English is hard.
    • Teaching is a hard job.
    • Life is hard, sometimes.
    • That was a hard test.
  • The adverb means, “did the action with a lot of struggle or difficulty.”
    • If you study hard, you will pass the class.
    • I always work hard.
    • Work hard, play hard. (Another cheesy line.)

2- “Hardly” is an adverb. It can mean barely or rarely.

  • She just arrived in the United States, and she hardly speaks English.
  • I hardly ever drink coffee in the evening.
  • He hardly works because he can’t find a full-time job.

Lesson Plan Tips

I don’t have a full-blown grammar lesson plan for you, but here’s a loose suggestion on how you might introduce the topic:

  1. On the board, write: 100 years ago, most women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays they hardly work.
  2. Ask: What’s wrong with this sentence?
  3. Give examples (see the ones listed above), and ask students to come up with some of their own.
  4. On the board, write: Are we working hard or hardly working? If students chuckle, you know they get it.

Ideas or Comments

Have your students made any memorable mistakes with Hard vs. Hardly? Do you have any other suggestion to add for teaching it?

What other confusing word pairs can you think of?

Please leave your comments in the box below!

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