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I know we don't say 'aim highly', but I don't know how to exaplain in grammatical terms. Is 'aim high' an idiom? Is 'high' an adverb? If it is, then why can't we say 'aim highly'?

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  • Because we think different.
    – John Smith
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 0:29
  • It's probably good to know that the 'ly' ending is falling out of use. A lot of people still judge statements like "it performed phenomenal" as incorrect (myself included) but I hear this kind of thing pretty regular(ly).
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 14:29
  • I still can't accept people saying 'eat healthy' instead of 'eat healthily'.
    – Louis Liu
    Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 12:23

3 Answers 3

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"Aim high" isn't telling you in what manner to aim, but where to aim. "Aim high, above the basket, in order to have the basketball reach the basket." "Aim carefully" would be telling you how to aim.

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  • Can you also add something about why "highly" would be incorrect?
    – gotube
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 3:14
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    @gotube: The first sentence addresses this point. It does so tersely but sufficiently for the answer to be informative.
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 4:54
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It's not an idiom, it's just a directional phrase, similar to "turn left", "go West", or "look up". Here, "high" is indeed an adverb, acting as a direction; you can replace it with "aim low", "aim left", "aim down", "aim straight ahead", etc.

It is certainly not equivalent to "aim highly", which doesn't have a clear meaning to my native ears, but would sound like a confused attempt at something like "aim well".

I don't think it's particularly related to the construction "think big", as the other answer suggests. You can say "think X" for almost any adjective or noun X, as a plea to change one's mental frame of reference: "think positive", "think dollars, not cents", "think science, not magic", etc. That is more idiomatic.

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  • Even if not related to "think big", it's related to "grow big". Which, in spite what Trump might think, would never be "grow bigly". Or, let's use another word: "grow large" rather than "grow largely".
    – Kaz
    Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 1:09
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    Aim big/ aim local/ aim global those are all other aim + adjective combinations. Aim takes an adjective not an adverb in those examples. And as described by James K, high is an adjective not an adverb in OP's example too. Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 13:55
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    The latter paragraph is confusing two very different constructions of "think X". "Big" refers to the manner of thinking, but the other examples are different. "Positive" is ambiguous between how you think (think in a positive manner) and what you think about (think of positive things). "Dollars" and "science" fall squarely in the category of what you think about, not the manner in which you think. These cannot be lumped into one category. There is a reason why it's "think big" and not "think bigly", but it not for the reason that this answer attempts to give.
    – Flater
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 4:52
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It's idiomatic, one of a family of idioms including "think big", "act bold" and (perhaps) "try hard", in which the word "high/big/hard" serves figuratively in place of a prepositional or noun phrase. "Aim high" can be understood as "Aim for the high thing". Due to its idiomatic nature, you can't mix up the adjectives and expect to get an idiomatic expression. "Think high" or "aim bold" don't mean much (but "act big" is possible).

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    Also, the adverb highly means very, to a high degree not towards a high position. Commented Oct 27, 2023 at 16:05
  • I think "act bold" is more of a linking phrase, like "be bold", not very like "think big" or "try hard". Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 1:38
  • Prezackerly it's an adjective, which is why you can modify it with very and not right or straight. There's a few other adjectives that can take part in the aim + [adjective] construction. Here's a few from COCA: aim big/ aim small/ aim true/ aim sure/ aim global/ aim wide. Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 13:50

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