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5 Simple Rules for Mastering the Difference between Exact and Exactly

I love it when there are similarities between the English language and the native language of the student I am teaching. This happens sometimes with my German-speaking students. We are both excited because we know the word, grammar construction, or idiom that is being introduced is more likely to stick since it is the same or similar in German.

But learning English can’t always be rainbows and unicorns.

There are differences between German and English that can’t be ignored.
One such difference is the use of the word genau in German and exact/exactly in English. In German, genau can be either an adverb and adjective.

  • Haben Sie die genaue Zeit? (adjective)
  • Das reicht genau. (adverb)

However, in English the adverb form has a distinct -ly ending when compared to the adjective form. For this reason, a common mistake I hear from students who speak German as their first language is the misuse of these two words.

Simply put, exact and exactly are not interchangeable. But once you learn a few simple rules, you can master the difference quickly.


Take a look at these examples. Do you notice any patterns?

  • I have the exact same shirt as you do.
  • I am wearing exactly the same shirt as you are.
  • He gave me the exact answers.
  • He gave me exactly the answers I needed.
  • She gave me exactly what I requested.
  • She offered me the exact salary I had requested.


Rule 1: Exact can stand alone as an adjective.
Ex. My calculations are exact.

Rule 2: Exactly can stand alone as an expression of agreement.
Ex. “It’s not worth the effort.”

Rule 3: If exact is modifying a noun, it comes after the article (the or an).
Ex. I have the exact same shirt as you do.

Rule 4: Exactly comes after the verb because it is an adverb modifying a verb.
Ex. I am wearing exactly the same shirt as you are.

Rule 5: If there is an indirect object, exactly follows both the verb and the indirect object.
Ex. She gave me exactly what I requested.

Exact or exactly activities practice


Try these sentences. Complete each sentence with exact or exactly.

  1. She has the __________ same sweater as I do.
  2. He is wearing __________ the same shirt as you are.
  3. She gave me the ___________ answers.
  4. He gave me _________ the answers I needed.
  5. The husband gave me __________ what I wanted for our anniversary.
  6. The carpenter’s measurements are always ____________.
  7. Daniela knows __________ what I like to eat.
  8. I am not the _________ same person I was 10 years ago.
  9. My son knows __________ what he wants for his birthday.
  10. My director forecasted the ___________ same sales numbers as I did.

I hope these rules are just what you need in order to take the guesswork out of when to use exact and when to use exactly. Knowing the rules is the first step towards mastery. What’s next? Practicing the sentences above and putting them into use.

Stephanie Schottel, M.A. is an ESL instructor at Talaera and the owner of Cup of Tea Language Coaching, a Houston-based business that specializes in one-on-one ESL coaching that empowers English learners to express themselves fully and confidently in their communities and workplaces. By using her own experience of studying and working abroad in Germany (and feeling unable to express her true self with the language tools she had), she brings insight, empathy, and knowledge of the language learning process into every session. She is passionate about helping ESL students to master the language so that they have the tools at hand to convey their ideas, values, and personality without compromise. When she is not teaching English, you will likely find her doing art projects with her daughter, on a jog or on a paddle-board, or looking up new German vocabulary words in her 25-year old German dictionary (that is literally falling apart).

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