Do it Real Quick,
Or The Death of the Adverb
The adverb is an endangered species in Modern English. One should neither wring one’s hands nor weep on hearing this news. In the course of the last thousand years, English has shed most of its ancient endings, so that one more loss does not matter. Some closely related Germanic languages have advanced even further. For example, in German, schnell is both “quick” and “quickly,” and gut means “good” and well,” even though wohl, a cognate of Engl. well, exists. Everybody, at least in American English, says: “Do it real quick.” Outside that phrase, which has become an idiom, adverbs are fine: he is really quick and does everything quickly. During his visit to Minneapolis after the collapse of the bridge, President Bush said: “We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible.” This is not a Bushism: few people would have used quickly here despite the fact that my computer highlighted the word and suggested the form with -ly.
Adverbs come from many sources. Some are ossified forms of nouns in the genitive or the dative (Old English had four cases). Such is, for example, whilom “once, formerly,” which Byron spells with an -e at the beginning of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Whilome in Albion isle there dwelt a youth.” The same ending occurs in seldom. It comes from the dative plural. In nowadays, -s is the ending of the old genitive, though we are apt to take it for the plural. An adverb may have no ending at all: consider oft, an archaic doublet of often. But the most common feature of adverbs is the suffix -ly: slow / slowly, and so forth. Unfortunately, the use of this suffix is inconsistent. In Old English, some adverb could be formed from adjectives by adding -e: wid “wide” versus wide “widely.” If an adjective ended in -lik “like,” the corresponding adverb had -like. In Middle English, final -e was dropped. As a result, many adjectives and adverbs merged. This is why long is ambiguous: a long day (adjective), and it lasted long (adverb). Sore, now an adjective, can function as an adverb, though this usage is archaic (I was sore afraid; they are sore oppressed; Childe Harold was sore given to revel and ungodly glee). Today we associate -ly with adverbs; yet adjectives having it are plentiful: consider brotherly, elderly, monthly, homely, westerly, and even likely. Monthly is an adjective in monthly payments, and an adverb in I am paid monthly. To confuse the already significant confusion, some words behave in an unpredictable manner. He works hard on his projects and he hardly works at all puzzle beginning students of English. In Old English, the distinction was clear: heard, adjective, versus hearde, adverb. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives many examples of hardly “firmly, with an effort, rigorously,” as in “what is made is slowly, hardly, and earnestly earned” (1840); citations with hardly “barely” do not antedate the middle of the 16th century. Contrary to expectation, late is both an adverb and an adjective, whereas lately is only an adverb. Pretty has a partner (prettily), but it has become a reinforcing adverb. We say: “The show was pretty dull, and the reception was pretty boring.”
Still another factor that makes the line between adjectives and adverbs blurry is the rivalry of such constructions as the moon was shining brightly and the sun shines bright. In the first case, brightly modifies the verbal form (how was the moon shining?); in the second, it is the sun that is bright, though the idea in both statements is the same. Usage is capricious, and analogy sometimes works for us and sometimes doesn’t. A celestial body can shine bright and brightly, a rose smells sweet or sweetly, but a remark can sound only clever, not cleverly. A man looks stupid when he puts his foot in his mouth and looks stupidly at the mess he has created.
Individual cases are hard to explain, and valid generalizations are hardly earned, but the tendency is obvious: adverbs are on the retreat in Modern English. Do it real quick has become the norm. We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible is a borderline case (quickly seems to be more appropriate). But it is enough to listen to the people around us, to observe adjectives replacing adverbs. A boy of ten comments on the speech of a person with an accent: “You are talking funny.” As ill luck would have it, the adverb funnily is rare, so that the boy had little choice. To a conservative taste he did it real good is a bit too much, but I fully realized what odds adverbs are facing only when I read in an undergraduate paper: “She sings beautiful.” On the same day I heard: “She is fragile and walks slow.” Another century or so, and the difference between those who speak good and those who speak bad will disappear. When that day comes, what will happen to the following exchange between Lady Bracknell and her nephew? “Good-afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well. –I am feeling very well, Aunt Augusta. –That’s not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together.” It looks as though adjectives and adverbs also prefer to part company.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”