Truly. Madly. Deep. Adverbs and flat adverbs
A few years ago, I became unusually vocal over a particular bit of linguistic abuse. Unusually, because the lexicographical instinct is to be descriptive of language change at all times, and sanguine about those bugbears that others decry. But this particular trend had me sufficiently riled that I wrote an article entitled ‘The Adverb is Dead. Long Live the Adverb’.
It’s not a new complaint. Many commentators before me have rued such now-standard formulations as ‘I’m good’, ‘Drive safe’, ‘Rooney simply ran quicker’. Apple exhorts us to ‘Think Different’, opting (on the face of it) for a pounding adjective over the slouchy adverb.
‘Twas ever thus
Since that article, though, I’ve been pondering the evidence of adverbial dwindle, and wondering if I’ve been overheating a little. As so often with such perceived offences, it pays to look at the past (when Kings and Queens used ‘ain’t’ liberally, and when, back in the 1600s, ‘disinterested’ really did mean ‘not in‘Think Different’erested’). I knew, after all, that adverbs have been around since Anglo-Saxon days, and that those without a ‘-ly’ ending have been as standard as those with for centuries (take ‘bright’, used beautifully and adverbially in the Old English epic Beowulf). Adverbs even used to be the annoying option. Henry Fowler groaned in the 1920s over how ‘every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have an -ly clapped on to it’ – an addition that he clearly thought any idiot could make.
So-called ‘flat’ adverbs (what one linguist more accurately described as the ‘bob-tailed’ kind) were clearly once a way of life. Samuel Pepys, whose diary pages boast many a polished adverb, was quite happy to drop them for effect: ‘miserable hot weather all night it was’, or, more grippingly, ‘I lacked a pot and there was none, and, bitter cold, so was forced to rise and piss in the chimny, and to bed again’. Centuries earlier, Chaucer chose the shorter kind of description. If they are not quite ‘driving’ safe, the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are doing many other things in such a manner, with not a ‘-ly’ amongst them.
Let’s agree to disagree
And yet. I will probably always remain a flawed half-purist, who likes the sound of ‘maddeningly’ and ‘trepidatiously’ (both of which I’ve heard flattened in the past week). I’m happy for Stephen King to believe that ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’, and for Elmore Leonard to venture that they simply ‘make for too many words’. They probably have history on their side. Adverbs will be adverbs – I just prefer the longer kind.
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