I'm just a little bit confused about the following example:

  1. If we must kill them, let it be quickly and cleanly, without excuses.

compared to the following one:

  1. Let it be quick, she prayed. For God's sake let it be quick...

I have done my homework reading here and here and here, but I have to admit that I am still unsure whether quickly in #1and quick in #2 are adjectives or adverbs. After all, what do they exactly modify?

Certainly, generally speaking, quick can be used as an adverb or as an adjective but quickly can only be an adverb.

  • quick is an adjective. (It can also be an adverb to mean soon.) Add -ly to make it the adverb quickly. (This means rapidly.) The adverb stays with the verb, the adjective stays with the noun. – Alejandro Feb 14 '16 at 22:27

This is an interesting questiion. What exactly do they modify? The answer is, of course, if they modify a noun, you need to use the adjective, and if a verb, then the adverb. Now, the first sentence, while common, isn't really correct. [Edit: Fumblefingers' comment makes me think twice about that. Anyway...] Look at these:

If we must kill them, let us do so quickly and cleanly, without excuses.
If we must kill them, let the killing be quick and clean, without excuses.

In your first sentence, these two constructions are getting crossed: it actually refers to the killing. However, it is also more concise than us do so. There are times when informal conversation performs this sort of abbreviation at the expense of absolutely correct grammar. In this case, of course, the most concise version is:

If we must kill them, let it be quick and clean, without excuses.

Clearly, the it refers to the killing. Perhaps the reason that the sentence sticks with the adverb is because the noun killing hasn't been mentioned, so there's a bit of an added thought process to mentally fill it in.

This tendency to abbreviate is probably why you will often see this substitution of an adjective for an adverb, especially in AmE:

If we must kill them, let us kill them quick and clean.

You pretty much have to learn on a case-by-case basis when colloquial English will allow this sort of transgression and when it will not.

  • 3
    For OP's first example I find it more natural to assume a deleted let it be [done] quickly to be adverbially modified. But of course quick can be adverbial as well as adjectival - Come quick! and Come quickly! are synonymous. – FumbleFingers Feb 14 '16 at 22:53
  • @FumbleFingers Now that you mention it, so do I. :) – BobRodes Feb 14 '16 at 23:41

Your first quote

If we must kill them, let it be quickly and cleanly, without excuses.

should possibly read

If we must kill them, let it be done quickly and cleanly, without excuses.

and seems to be an allusion to

(Macbeth Act 1 Scene 7)
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly

In your second example, quick is the subject complement for it

Both uses as adverb and adjective are correct.

  • I was quite certain that some people would introduce a done to say that quickly modifies it, @FumbleFingers, and I feel it right. – Lucian Sava Feb 14 '16 at 23:00
  • It is one of the most famous soliloquies – Peter Feb 14 '16 at 23:06
  • 1
    @LucianSava I confess I didn't think of it. It seems entirely right to me as well. – BobRodes Feb 14 '16 at 23:46

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