Is the Adverb Dying?

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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:

ThinkDifferent

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:

shopsmart

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?

January 25, 2010 - 6:21am
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