Once upon a time, I used the word "wrong" as an adverb in a column. I wrote something like, "Be careful not to use 'whom' wrong."
The next day, I received two e-mails, both scolding me for the exact same reason. I should have used "wrongly," the two readers said. "Wrong," they told me — kid gloves off — is an adjective. I needed an adverb, "wrongly," to modify the verb "use," they wrote. My readers didn't get an apology, but they did get a particularly amusing column in which I printed both the readers' letters and followed them with my reply.
Basically, "Dear gentlemen: Open your dictionaries to the word 'wrong.' Please note that little 'adv.' that proves that 'wrong' is an adverb and that you are both wrong."
So you can imagine my excitement when, recently, I opened up my e-mail and found a swift and decisive "gotcha" from a reader named Joyce.
Joyce had some things to say about a column I did a few weeks ago in which I wrote: "Which of the following is the best reason to open a book: A. To learn something you don't know, or B. To find in print something you already know."
Joyce didn't like that, not one little bit.
"Regarding your second paragraph, 'best' should be 'better' as you have only two items from which to choose," she told me.
OK, so it was hardly the long-winded verbal spanking the "wrongly" guys had given me, but it was still a pretty snappy "gotcha." And, as a bonus, she threw in just one more sentence. "Yes, I'm a grammar snob."
So, I opened a book. Well, 12 of them, actually. And when I saw that none of my trusted usage guides contained an entry for "best" versus "better," I turned to "s" for "superlative." And that's how I found, in the well-respected "Fowler's Modern English Usage," a confirmation of exactly what I had suspected.
"In general it is a sound rule that confines the use of comparative forms of an adjective to contexts in which two entities are being compared, and reserves superlative forms for comparison of three entities or more," wrote R.W. Burchfield. "But English usage is not a totally restrictive system."
But it's the stuff that came next that I really enjoyed. In this entry, Burchfield lists examples of superlatives used for comparisons between just two — examples from some rather impressive writers.
"To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine." — William Shakespeare
"Whose god is strongest, thine or mine." — Daniel Defoe
"She was the youngest of two daughters." — Jane Austen.
And (my favorite), Burchfield, who revised and updated the book, cites the original author, Fowler, who wrote: "'dingy,' 'dinghy.' The first is best."
I assume Joyce got the "grammar snob" reference from the tagline of this column, which mentions the title of my book, and not from the book itself. Because if she had read the book, she'd know that "grammar snobs" is not a reference to sticklers. It's a reference to aspiring sticklers who, like our "wrongly" guys, just don't see the need to do their homework first.