A Word, Please: Stuck in adverb amateur hour

Years ago, I wrote a column about “whom” and the dangers of using it wrong. What happened next remains one of the weirdest moments in my writing career.

A reader sent an email to scold me, but not for anything to do with the word “whom.” The word he objected to was “wrong.” I was, without a doubt, an idiot for using the adjective “wrong” to modify the verb “use” instead of the adverb “wrongly.”

Then, the next day, another reader did the same.

A lone hothead in such a mad rush to criticize that he couldn’t be bothered to open a dictionary I could shrug off. But two? Two people who not only would have us say “Don’t use it wrongly,” but who would condemn the alternative without taking even a minute to check their facts?

Adverbs, especially “manner adverbs,” can bring out the worst in some people. Manner adverbs describe the manner in which an action occurs. The man walks slowly. The woman speaks quickly. The child did poorly on the test.

They often end in “ly” and have adjective equivalents without the “ly.” That is, the adverb “slowly” has the corresponding adjective “slow.” The adverb “quickly” has the adjective form “quick” and the adverb “poorly” has “poor.”

In fact, if there’s one grammar lesson we remember best from school, it’s probably that adverbs like “quickly” modify verbs, while adjectives like “quick” modify nouns.

But, as with most things in life and language, it’s not that simple. Not all manner adverbs end in “ly.” And many words that have both an adverb form and an adjective form don’t divvy up their tasks according to the simple rule.

Often, the one without the “ly” can function as an adverb just as correctly as the one with the “ly.” Look at these sentences.

The man walks quick.

The woman speaks slow.

Drive safe.

Go easy on him.

Don’t use “whom” wrong.

Those examples are all correct. Slow, quick, safe, easy and wrong are called “flat adverbs.”

“A flat adverb,” “Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” says, “is an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective: ‘fast’ in “drive fast,” ‘slow’ in ‘go slow,’ ‘sure’ in ‘you sure fooled me.’”

Some flat adverbs have corresponding “ly” forms, like “slow” and “slowly.” Some, like “fast,” do not. Either way, the point is that a word modifying a verb doesn’t necessarily have to end in “ly.”

Some people think usages like “Drive safe” are a tragic deterioration of the English language. On the contrary: there used to be more flat adverbs. They were favorite tools not just of Huck Finn types drawling that a day was “powerful hot,” but also of distinguished writers like Samuel Pepys, who in his 1667 diary wrote that he was “horrid angry,” and Jonathan Swift, who in the 1712 “Journal to Stella,” wrote, “the five lades were monstrous fine.”

For people who object to “go slow” or “drive fast,” Washington Post Business Desk copy chief Bill Walsh has some straight talk: “You’re stuck in Adverb Amateur Hour,” he writes in “The Elephants of Style.” “Stop humming the ‘Lolly, Lolly, Lolly’ song from ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ for a moment and pick up a dictionary … ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are adverbs as well as adjectives.”

And remember, just because a descriptor comes after a verb doesn’t mean it’s modifying the action in the verb. Sit pretty. Slice the meat thin. In these, the descriptor doesn’t apply to an action as much as it does to a noun. In “Think pink,” the descriptive word is functioning as a noun.

The bottom line is that whenever an “ly” form seems unnatural or forced, it’s probably the wrong choice.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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