Arts & Entertainment

Adverb Is as Adverb Does

"A PAL OF MINE worries that the adverb is in decline," wrote John Hildebidle of Cambridge last week, citing usages like "have your child eat healthy" and "fly direct from Boston to Timbuktu" as signs of adverbial erosion. "Is the Noble Adverb passé, defended only by those dauntless pedants who are still battling the split infinitive?" he asked.

Ah yes, the death of the adverb-we’ve heard those rumors before, and we’ve all seen the troubling symptoms: Our friends say "I’m doing good," sportscasters say "they played excellent," Apple tells us to "Think Different."

But the pessimists are arguing from the wrong premise. "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.

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." (If you’d like something more elaborate, a 1906 grammar book-for sixth-graders!-offers this Rumsfeldian formulation: "The adverb is an attributive word which expresses an attribute of an attribute or an attribute of an idea of relation; as, He came here.")

Though we commonly form adverbs by adding -ly to adjectives, there are plenty of adverbs with different shapes, like soon, indubitably, almost, down, Sunday.

Merely cutting off an adverb’s tail-cropping really to real-doesn’t make it an adjective, any more than a similar operation would turn a monkey into a chimpanzee.

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. But does this development qualify as a decline?

It is not, let’s note, the creation of our decadent age. In fact, flat adverbs once thrived, says Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which quotes Pepys ("I was horrid angry"), Defoe ("the weather was so violent hot"), and that ardent language reformer Jonathan Swift ("the five ladies were monstrous fine").

But then came the grammar reformers, preaching the gospel of consistency. "Two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians has reduced the number of flat adverbs in common use," says Merriam-Webster, "and has lowered the status of quite a few others."

For some usage traditionalists, that homogenizing campaign was the problem, not the solution. In "Modern English Usage" (1926), in an entry labeled "Unidiomatic -ly," H.W. Fowler objected to the "officious" updating of "such time-honoured phrases as mighty kind and sure enough," and to "the growing notion that every monosyllabic adjective, if an adverb is to be made of it, must have an -ly clapped on to it." Fowler hoped he could rescue adverbial mighty, sure, right, and straight from the plodding standardizers.

Wilson Follett, decades later, was on the same page, as it were; in "Modern American Usage" (1966), he devoted a long entry-titled "Adverbs, vexatious"-to explaining why, for instance, directly and direct are both necessary adverbs. "The belief that adverbs should end in -ly is hard to down in the mistaken purist," he conceded, but he thought it was worth a try.

Both of them, of course, were not just defending tradition but also showing off. Any idiot, they imply, can slap that -ly on to an adjective and make it an adverb; only the discriminating know, for instance, that deep and wide and, yes, direct were adverbs well before they got their -ly tails.

If you aspire to this sort of dauntless pedantry, then, your first job is checking the facts. You don’t want to be one of those misinformed cranks who go around editing road signs to read GO SLOWLY. Next, be an optimist: Sports lingo like "they played excellent" may not infect everyday language, and if it does, well, we all manage to handle adverb pairs like sure/surely and quick/quickly without noticeable strain. And don’t talk about the decline of the adverb; it’s not going anywhere.

As for that split infinitive, you can cross it off your enemies list. The idea that "he hopes to gradually improve" is faulty English is a "fetish" and a "curious superstition," said Fowler, and though the myth persists, it is no more credible now than it was a century ago. A really dauntless pedant should be in the front lines defending the blameless, natural, and sometimes indispensable split infinitive.