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Or The Death of the Adverb

Do it Real Quick,
Or The Death of the Adverb

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By Anatoly Liberman

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.


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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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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31 Responses to “Do it Real Quick,
Or The Death of the Adverb”
  1. Scott Belyea says:

    “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 …”

    I wonder. Is this a personal observation, or is there more behind your observation? The use of “quick” here certainly grates on me.

    “Do it real quick has become the norm.”

    Same question. This is certainly not the norm among those I talk to. However, there may well be broader evidence to support your contention.

    I’ll admit to not much liking the trend, but it is real. At least it doesn’t seem to be something that will work against clear communication.

  2. Mindy says:

    I OFTEN read this wonderful blog THOROUGHLY. However, I found today’s post on adverbs EXTREMELY fun to read. Cheers to making adverbs shine BEAUTIFULLY once again!!!

  3. Justin Holl says:

    There is a widely aired television commercial that exhorts people “to eat healthy”.

  4. Justin Holl says:

    The last written word from General Custer in 1876 was “Come quick, bring packs”.

    So this development is not that new.

  5. Will says:

    “Another century or so, and the difference between those who speak good and those who speak bad will disappear.”

    The argument that the world is dumbing down has been around since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. I enjoy this column, and this one was fun to read, but I disagree with this sentiment in the last paragraph. You can blame those who haven’t been sufficiently educated (or should I say “sufficient educated?”) but the fact is that language does evolve. Some of that evolution is driven by the least educated among us, and some by the best educated. But no one can dictate exactly how it’s going to go.

    I think this is a perfectly natural change. Two parts of speech with similar function are becoming fused into one. That’s not so outlandish in a language where, as you rightly point out, the rules for their form and spelling are confusing and incoherent. It’s only natural for speakers to try to simplify and reduce the number of rules they need to remember. Indeed, I’m quite sure that the very best writers of English in the future will still be able to inspire us using these new parts of speech – I propose calling them “adverbjectives” – and there will still be plenty of fun rules and exceptions surrounding their use for English teachers to test their students on (for example, the high crime of ending a sentence with a preposition :-) .

    I much more strongly agree with your earlier sentiment: “One should neither wring one’s hands nor weep on hearing this news.” Of course we may miss some of those old uses – like “hardly” in its original connotation – but how much fun to see where this dynamism will take us next, and what new meanings there will be?

  6. [...] riding a series of escalators up to the park’s highest elevation and then wandered slowly(yes Anatoly, I do use adverbs) down towards the largest bench I have ever seen. The bench was completely [...]

  7. [...] the comma, now the adverb? Quick verbs! To the [...]

  8. Scott Belyea says:

    Justin Holl said :

    “The last written word from General Custer in 1876 was “Come quick, bring packs”.”

    Yes, an excellent example, albeit one composed under some pressure.

    “Wait a second … that should be ‘quickly,’ shouldn’t it?”

    And in the interest of accuracy, it should be pointed out that he was actually a Lieutenant-Colonel.

  9. [...] it a personal preference, particularly when it comes to fiction writing, but is it really such a bad that the adverb is endangered? (via Kenyon [...]

  10. Nicholas Cole says:

    I am fairly sure that in British English the adverb is safe. I am always struck when I visit America by the processes you chart in this post, but I rarely hear them in British English.

    In addition, I think most BrE speakers I know would say, “The sun shines brightly”. And they would never say, “Do it real quick!” but rather, “Do it quickly!”

  11. [...] lastly, the death of the adverb. While I would love to give my two cents on whether or not the adverb’s increasing rarity is [...]

  12. [...] the case. A more basic question concerns the source of my statement (it deals with the death of the adverb) that rebuilding the bridge quick (rather than quickly) is probably how most speakers of American [...]

  13. [...] Adverbs are on the retreat in Modern English. The band has been swearing off adverbs for almost two months now, and intend to use gerunds as frequently as possible until they can get another gig. A hotel alarm clock that works? What a concept Wherein the article writer and her husband are flummoxed by the alarm clock in their room at the Palmer House Hilton. [...]

  14. ferrousoxide says:

    The adverb has been removed from its proper place and found a new home at the beginning of sentences and dialogue tags written by first-year creative writing students: “Happily, she met her boyfriend at the mall,” “‘Let’s do this right now!’ she said quickly.” Just as grating.

  15. [...] Read more about the adverb’s demise in this article from the Oxford University Press [...]

  16. Pier Johnson says:

    Tongues do not evolve — no evolution process happens.

    Fops parrot this dunce-riddled mantra chanted by the High Priests of the Church of Academia.

    The same set of sounds exist today as have for 100,000 years.

    Only beliefs of folks change through time.

    With changed beliefs comes a willingness to take on a new protocol — same words, new meaning; new word links, new meaning.

    Folks become beguiled by adverbs in the Pidgin Latinate (Contemporary English aka ModE) since most adverbs have come from Latinate Old French.

    Few come from Frankish Old French, Norman Old French, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle Dutch.

    Since most adverbs of the Pidgin Latinate get built from sounds not used often by speakers of North Sea English, these words fall upon deaf ears or worse, muddle listeners.

    These Latinate words carry less meaning for folks born as North Sea English speakers (folks from forefathers of 17th c. Britain).

    High Priests of the Church of Academia and their toady followers fail to see that written words are not spoken words; spoken words are sound phrases; sound phrases become electromagnetic radiation to which brains respond.

    Just as a clever guitarist picks runs of sounds (note phrases) that make our brains sing, so does the clever speaker who says the right words one after another.

    Word order is important only because sound order is important.

    Speakers of Pidgin Latinate with their adverbs from Latinate Old French and other sources have a nasty habit of shoving their adverbs wildly within their speech.

    They do so because they lack a rich wordhoard of name words, doing words and phrases.

    Most adverbs give nothing to their speakers and do nothing for their listeners.

    Why say “He ran quickly [to his next class].” when you can say “He dashed [head down].”?

  17. Karen Madoc says:

    The slow demise of the use of adverbs becomes a difficult area for English teachers, because, although I know it will die a gradual death, I want to give it some respect while it is still around. I want my students to know that adverbs still have a function and that the lack of them in speech and writing still surprises and sometimes shocks me. I am a colonial British English speaker, middle aged, old fashioned and slow to accept the inevitable. My observation is that this is almost exclusively a North American phenomenon.

  18. [...] we hardly ever notice is the wiping out of the line between nouns and adjectives. I have once written about the collapse of the distinction between adjectives and adverbs (do it real quick and the [...]

  19. [...] i posted a “glossary” word and used it in a sentence. i got that out of the way “real quick.” i posted a link about that phrase above. it’s interesting. i bastardize the english [...]

  20. JJ says:

    I have to agree with Karen Madoc, that this is a difficult area for English teachers. What are we supposed to teach our students? If somebody writes, “I smiled sarcastic”, or, “I laughed guilty”, do we correct them, or do we just let it slide?
    It seems to me that most of the adjectives which have become de facto adverbs are the most common words like, “slow”, “quick”, “good”, “bad”.
    I’m not a precriptivist by any means, but if we applied the laissez-faire attitude which seems to prevail with adverbs to every other area of the language – then in a few decades there would not be a comprehensible language worth saving.
    Forget plural and singular. Forget tense – past participles are increasingly being replaced by simple forms in present perfect constructions.
    It’s all very well saying that the adverb is dead, but just make sure that every dictionary recognises that every adjective is also an acceptable adverb – otherwise the teacher is floundering in a grammar no man’s land.

  21. Russell says:

    ‘real quick’ is a pervasive cancer upon the English language; as is the extreme overuse of the word ‘like’ and the phrase ‘or whatever,’ as filler.

    Please teach your children proper vocabulary and speech techniques.

  22. Eb says:

    “A man looks stupid when he puts his foot in his mouth and looks stupidly at the mess he has created.”

    Surely ‘stupid’ is a complement…

  23. Fleur Cutforth says:

    It’s important to remember that the writer is American and speaking from an American point of view. In other English speaking countries such as New Zealand, the adverb is commonly accepted and we are often taken aback at the replacement of adjectives on American TV shows.

    Surely the writer is expecting someone to comment on one of his last setences, “Another century or so, and the difference between those who speak good and those who speak bad will disappear.” In international English, it should say, “… those you speak well and those badly/poorly.”

    Question: why do Americans always say, “I feel badly”? That’s bad grammar. If you can feel good, then you can feel bad – it’s the adjective’s opposite. I feel good/bad, pretty/ugly, hungry/full…

  24. Frank says:

    The writer should say “Modern Unites Statesian” as in the English I speak the adverb is still common-place. Only those from the U.S.A. seem to have lost the ability to use the English language correctly.

    The other thing which is noticeable from some of the respones above is that the personal pronoun (or “I” for those who don’t understand “personal pronoun”) is by tradition capitalised.

  25. Curtis Dittlof says:

    Fleur Cutforth noticed the phrase used by Anatoly Liberman in his story “Another century or so, and the difference between those who speak good and those who speak bad will disappear.” Clearly, it should have read “In another century or so, those who speak well, and those who speak poorly, will dissappear.” But, Cutforth was wrong claiming that Americans ALWAYS say, “I feel badly”? First, the question mark goes inside the parentheses. Second, Americans, don’t say this often! But many undereducated Americans still can’t get past using double negatives, such as “I don’t got no job now!”

  26. Rose says:

    Everybody, at least in American English, says: “Do it real quick.” Not so, actually, that bothers me and my family. We always say, “Do it really quickly” or “Do it very quickly”. Generally in California, that is how it is said, at least around where I live.

    I am not a professional communicator, however, and it really upsets me when, the ‘experts’ on TV/Cable news obviously don’t even remember what we all should have learned in grade school.

  27. [...] Anatoly Liberman’s look at the death of the adverb. [...]

  28. Daniel W says:

    I think we should mourn the death of the adverb, regardless of English historically “shedding its endings”. Is the -ly strictly needed to be understood? No. But neither are tenses, there is always a contextual word to let you know when something is happening regardless of conjugation.

    Just because its easier to forget the ending doesn’t mean it should be. Noah Webster in the USA tried to reform the English language, creating American English, to make it easier to learn. Today, English and American English are together the worlds most widely spoken language even though an incredibly small number of Noah’s suggested changes were actually implemented to create American English, so it seems to me it can’t be a question of ease of use.

    To my ears it ultimately comes across as lazy and uneducated, if we just want to communicate, then fine, spk 2 u l8r ppl, otherwise, learn to speak and write properLY.

  29. Jules says:

    Here we go again. How to justify why Americans cannot help but change the English language to suit their decreasing cognitive skills!

  30. [...] that she hates hearing drive safe instead of drive safely. Some time in the past I wrote on “the death of the adverb,” and the essay provoked numerous comments, which I need not reproduce here. I only want to [...]

  31. [...] have to imagine this will have some sort of effect on our verbal and writing skills. The adverb is already dying quickly (see what I did there?), will the adjective be next? Who needs descriptors when you can see [...]

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