Is the Adverb Dying?

For more than a century, a war has been waged against adverbs by advocates of good writing, by the likes of such literary luminaries as Mark Twain, who said --

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me "¦ There are subtleties which I cannot master at all -- they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me -- and this adverb plague is one of them.

-- and modern scribes like Elmore Leonard, who cautions that only rank amateurs would dare modify the word "say" with an adverb:

To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs."

But to some grammarians, there's another war on against the adverb -- a corporate war. For the last fifteen years or so, sloganeers have seemed almost to take joy in whacking the -ly from the end of words that modify verbs, littering our cultural landscape with amputated-sounding phrases like:

and rather more famously:


There's even a publication -- and one might argue that any publication must at least nominally be devoted to the discipline of language -- that employs this same lamentable technique:


Lord, lord lord. It annoys me to no end. I am fairly assaulted with it every time I go into the Subway sandwich joint down the street, where the management has instructed its employees to shout its new slogan at anyone who comes through the door:

"Welcome to Subway!" the woman behind the register will say, and then, in an almost military call-and-response fashion, all the sandwich artists cry, "EAT FRESH!" And though their loud voices try and communicate enthusiasm, a genuine desire for you to eat fresh, their dead eyes betray a desperation, worsened with each repetition, to add an -ly.

Yeah, eat freshly sounds weird and would make a crappy slogan. But it's correct, isn't it?

Yes, but according to grammarians who know, like the late, great William Safire, "eat fresh" isn't necessarily wrong, either. They claim that it's something called a "flat adverb," and is perfectly acceptable. From an article by Boston Globe writer Jan Freeman:

Adverb is as adverb does; according to the streamlined definition from ``A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage" (1957), ``A qualifying word that is not qualifying a noun is an adverb." ``Eat healthy" isn't missing an adverb; it just happens to have borrowed healthy, the adjective form, to serve in place of healthily or healthfully. That doesn't make healthy an adjective, though; it's the job, not the uniform, that counts.

So the adverb is not fading away; it's just going about more often in the style H.L. Mencken called ``bob-tailed" and grammarians call ``flat," or uninflected.

Fine. But it still makes my freaking skin crawl.

Anyone else want to ban the flat adverb?

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The Origins of 36 Marvel Characters, Illustrated
Pop Chart Lab
Pop Chart Lab

No matter what their powers, every super hero has an origin story, from Spider-Man’s radioactive bite to Iron Man’s life-threatening chest shrapnel. In their latest poster, the designers at Pop Chart Lab have taken their infographic savvy to the Marvel Universe, charting the heroic origins of 36 different Marvel characters through miniature, minimalist comics.

Without using any words, they’ve managed to illustrate Bucky Barnes's plane explosion and subsequent transformation into the Winter Soldier, Jessica Jones’s car crash, the death of the Punisher’s family, and other classic stories from the major Marvel canon while paying tribute to the comic book form.

Explore the poster below, and see a zoomable version on Pop Chart Lab’s website.

A poster featuring 36 minimalist illustrations of superhero origin stories.
Pop Chart Lab

Keep your eyes open for future Marvel-Pop Chart crossovers. The Marvel Origins: A Sequential Compendium poster is “the first release of what we hope to be a marvelous partnership,” as Pop Chart Lab’s Galvin Chow puts it. Prints are available for pre-order starting at $37 and are scheduled to start shipping on March 8.


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