Merrily We Modify

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She cooks real good and sings loud while she does it. 
He runs quick and talks smooth. 
You’d better drive slow and watch careful through the work zone.

I hope these sentences jangle your ear. What is missing from them? What makes their speaker sound so unrefined? Answer: Adverbs!

The corrected versions sound more elegant:

She cooks really well and sings loudly while she does it.

He runs quickly and talks smoothly.

You’d better drive slowly and watch carefully through the work zone.

Yes, the Crusty Curmudgeon is at it again (my favorite Jeopardy category is Grammar Police). I’ve noticed recently that speakers, writers, and especially advertisers commonly use adjectives where adverbs should be. They just drop the -ly that often marks an adverb, and misuse the poor, bare, lonely adjective. A sign that reads “Go Slow” is commonly accepted, but plain bad grammar. So how can we avoid such errors? 

There are two main classes of words that function as modifiers in English: adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives are pretty simple: they modify nouns. That’s a pretty dress, a beautiful garden, or a powerful thunderstorm. Adverbs are more complex. They can modify verbs, other adjectives, or other adverbs. That is an extremely pretty dress. This is most certainly a beautiful garden. The thunderstorm arrived suddenly. Adverbs typically express manner, place, time, frequency, or degree, answering questions such as howin what waywhenwhereto what extent; whereas adjectives specify quality or quantity. Both derive from Latin, with the prefix ad- meaning to or toward, verbum meaning word, and jective meaning to attach.

So when describing how something is done—how does she cook, sing, or drive?—choose an adverb. Many (but not all) adverbs are formed by simply adding -ly to an adjective: quick becomes quickly, loud becomes loudly, and so on. We do not sleep sound; we sleep soundly. We do not eat hearty; we eat heartily. We do not hug our grandchildren tight; we hug them tightly. Captain Kirk and his Star Trek crew doe not bold go where no man has gone before; they boldly go. 

“I wandered lonely as a cloud” (William Wordsworth)—not lone as a cloud— and “Flow gently, sweet Afton”—not flow gentle (Robert Burns). But Dylan Thomas broke this rule with his immortal line “Do not go gentle into that good night”! His choice not to use “gently” creates an arresting case of poetic license and must be forgiven. 

I blame advertising slogans for normalizing this language malpractice. Apple’s notorious 1997 campaign “Think different!” caused quite a stir among grammarians, but has now become mainstream. “Eat True” counsels my Nature’s Path cereal box, mimicking Subway’s “Eat Fresh” campaign. While inside my brain a voice is screaming, “No! you can’t butcher the language like that!” It may indeed be a good idea to think differently or to eat truly and freshly, but why should I follow the advice of a neanderthal? 

Marketers may, in fact, break grammar rules on purpose to catch our attention. “The concept of ‘unconventional’ grammar, as it is otherwise known, works by making people stop and focus on the message that is being conveyed” (toppandigital.com). Clearly taking a page out of Dylan Thomas’s playbook, these bold rule defiers attempt to appeal to a younger demographic who delight in rebelling against strict, old-fashioned grammarians (like me). Remember “Eat Mor Chikin”? Don’t even get me started on “creative spelling” in advertising and branding. “Controversial grammar still gets consumers talking,” declares Canadian news site cbc.com. “For grammar pedants around the world, disaster looms. It will be impossible to tell whether grammatical mistakes are deliberate or a clever marketing tool!” (sociallitigator.com). 

Should advertising, like poetry, be exempt from grammatical rules? I don’t think so. I can’t forgive advertisers for these deliberate errors, because they model bad grammar to our youth for the sake of the almighty dollar.

Another frequent sign I see that flaunts this rule is “Go Slow.” Using slow as an adverb may be considered acceptable in informal speech, but not in formal writing, where the correct expression is Go Slowly—as in proceed slowly or walk slowly. But “take it slow” has definitely entered the mainstream. 

One of the most commonly confused adjective/adverb pairs is good versus well. Just remember that good is an adjective, while well is an adverb. “How are you?” “I’m doing good” is a frequent conversational exchange. But, because it modifies the verb doing, the correct response should be “I’m doing well.” “She plays the piano good” is incorrect because good modifies the verb plays. The correct sentence would be “She plays the piano well.” She’s a good pianist who plays well. He’s a good carpenter who builds well. 

There are other tricky cases that often trip people up. Really is an adverb intensifier, synonymous with very. So “that’s real nice of you” and “she did real well on her exam” are incorrect. Say instead “that’s really nice of you” and “she did really well on her exam.” Bad and badly can also be confusing, because bad is used with verbs of sensation such as feel, be, and seem. “I feel bad that the picnic was rained out” is correct. But badly is the adverb to use with action verbs. “Hollywood romances often end badly.” The 2014 Selena Gomez flick Behaving Badly had it right. Adverbs can also indicate time or location. “I planted flowers yesterday.” “Your seat is there.”

Some writing guides advise you to keep your use of adverbs to a minimum; Stephen King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Mark Twain concurred with “Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” This is because they are often unnecessary or redundant, as in “she whispered quietly” or “he screamed loudly.” If you wish to avoid adverbs, either use a more active verb or rewrite your sentence entirely. “The dog ran quickly to its owner” can become “the dog raced to its owner.” “He walked swiftly toward the window” can become “he dashed toward the window.”  “She dances gracefully” can be changed to “Her dancing is graceful” (because dancing has become a noun). “I wish I could write as neatly as he can” could become “I admire his neat writing.” But adverbs definitely have their place if used correctly. So, if you want to polish up your writing, use adverbs wisely. 

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