Grammar Wednesday


Fermat (who either doesn’t have a blog or didn’t include the link) sent a comment on Wednesday’s Grammar Wednesday post asking this:

Mrs. Chili,

I would like everyone’s opinion on this.  Because school is back in, the city has posted large signs of a bright yellow school bus.  On the bus is printed “School’s back.  Drive Safe.”

I think it should be “Drive Safely.”  Is the ‘ly’ slowly being dropped from the vernacular?  I’m too much of a prescriptionist for my own good?

This bugs me, too, so I’m making it its own little special edition, Grammar-Wednesday-on-a-Saturday post.

Buses around here do that, too, and I’ve seen more than a few bumper stickers with the sentiment, as well.  My husband and I always say the “ly” because it makes us crazy that it’s being dropped.

Safe is an adjective that describes something  – that’s not a safe chainsaw or she’s a very safe driverSafely is an adverb that describes how something is done – the children are tucked safely into bed or please drive safely.

I have no idea why the “ly” is being dropped, but I notice it falling off of other words, too – quick is the most common offender but I’m sure, if given enough time, I can come up with a few more (or just watch a Madden game; you’ll have a list of them).  It makes me cringe.



Filed under Grammar

13 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. This is an old one!

    We’ve been steadily dropping the -ly suffix from many adverbs for decades or more, with some English dialects doing it more than others. I believe American English does this more than Australian English for instance, and my intuition tells me that British English does it less still.

    This is probably a stereotype, but I reckon southern US (Mississippi, etc.) English can also do this with those adverbs that modify adjectives. Not all adverbs modify verbs as I’m sure you know:
    He spoke profoundly (modifies verb ‘spoke’)
    He’s profoundly deaf (modifies adjective ‘deaf’)
    I remember an episode of the Simpsons, where they did a Huckleberry Finn rip-off, and Bart says ‘those (whatever) guns are weak’, to which Nelson replies ‘Powerful weak’ (i.e., ‘powerfully weak’).

    Then there are the sentential adverbs:
    He’ll hopefully be here soon
    doesn’t mean ‘he’ll be here soon and he will be full of hope’. I don’t think these adverbs can ever drop the -ly.

    Another thing to point out is that the difference between adverbs and adjectives is pretty meagre; they both modify something, an adjective modifies a noun and an adverb modifies verbs, adjectives or entire sentences. There are many languages that have no such distinction. These are all just the same part of speech ‘modifiers’. If you drop the -ly, there’s no loss of information since it’s likely clear to you whether the element being modified is a noun, a verb or an adjective.

    I was just having a look at the OED’s entry for the -ly suffix. Way too much to post here, so MrsChili, I’m emailing it to you.

  2. The lack of -ly drives me nuts, too – in some places more than others. For example, I can forgive it or ignore it when people are just speaking. In written work or signs, I cannot stand it. I cringe when I see a copy of Real Simple. I wish they had entitled it “Real. Simple.” instead.

  3. fermat

    Thank you Mrs. Chili for making me feel special. My own post! I have, on occasion, taken a black Sharpie and ‘fixed’ the mistake, but I’m loathe to do it, as it is public property.

    I should find out who made the sign, or at least who authorized the design, and point out the problem. I think it’s particularly heinous because it’s a sign about the school system.

    N.B. I don’t have a blog, or a website. I haven’t joined the multitudes, yet.

  4. drtombibey

    Hey chili. If you read my last convoluted post, you’ll know why I never woulda made it as a teacher.

    Dr. B

  5. This note has nothing to do with safe/safely, but with busses vs. buses. While I realize that it is acceptable to write the plural of “bus” as “busses,” the preferred plural is “buses.” The reason for that, I think, is because “buss” (an old word for a “kiss”) is made plural by adding -es: “busses.” I like to keep my buses separate from my busses, except, of course, when I give busses to people on buses!

  6. This is from Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage:

    A flat adverb is an adverb that has the same form as its related adjective: fast in “drive fast,” slow in “go slow,” sure in “you sure fooled me, ” bright in “the moon is shining bright,” flat in “she turned me down flat,” hard and right in “he hit the ball hard  
    but right at the shortstop.” Flat adverbs have been a problem for  
    grammarians and schoolmasters for a couple of centuries now, and more recently usage writers have continued to wrestle with them.

    Flat adverbs were more abundant and used in greater variety formerly than they are now. They were used then as ordinary adverbs and as intensifiers:

    … commanding him incontinent to avoid out of his realm and to make no war – Lord Berners, translation of Froissart’s Chronicles, 1523

    … Iwas horrid angry, and would not go – Samuel Pepys, diary, 29 May 1667

    … the weather was so violent hot – Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 119

    … the five ladies were monstrous fine – Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella, 6 Feb. 1712

    … I will not be extreme bitter – William Wycherly, The Country  
    Wife, 1675

    You would be hard pressed to find modern examples of these particular uses.

    Originally such adverbs had not been identical with adjectives; they had been marked by case endings, but over the course of Middle English the endings disappeared. The 18th-century grammarians, such as Lowth 1762, explain how these words were adverbs. They saw them as adjectives, and they considered it a grammatical mistake to use an adjective for an adverb. They preferred adverbs ending in -ly.

    Two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians has reduced the number of flat adverbs in common use and has lowered the status of quite a few others. Many continue in standard use, but most of them compete with an -ly form. Bernstein 1971, for instance, list such pairs as bad, badly; bright, brightly; close, closely; fair, fairly; hard, hardly; loud, loudly; right, rightly; sharp, sharply; tight, tightly. Many of these pairs have become differentiated, and now the flat adverb fits in some expressions while the -ly adverb goes in others. And a few flat adverbs – fast and soon, for instance – have managed to survive as the only choice.

  7. So in short, it looks like adverbs without ly are in fact becoming less common.

  8. It probably makes you cringe because you’ve convinced yourself to believe that it is ‘wrong’. Someone’s already pointed out the flat-adverb reality of the English language, so I don’t need to.

    Drive safe is perfectly fine–especially for logos, mottos, sayings, and idioms, but even so in formal language.

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  10. J Gies

    I am an ESL teacher hired-wired for grammar, and I say both are OK. It’s very difficult to explain, but there is a difference.

    “Drive safely” means performing the action of operating the car in a safe manner. “Drive safe” seems to mean not just the driver, and not just the duration of time in the car, and semantically, not just the *operation* of the car, it’s the process of getting from point A to point B, and being safe at the end of the process. This is why “Drive careful” doesn’t work: one is not careful at the END of the process.

    We’re reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in my American Literature class right now, and just today we read a sentence that had the basic grammar “He arrived triumphant.” That does not mean the same thing as “He arrived triumphantly.” The first one means he was triumphant by the time he got there; the second means he performed the action of arriving in a triumphant manner.

    I vote for both. The adverb is NOT always the only way to do it.

    The REAL question to ask is, does the adverb modify the performing of the action of the verb it goes with? If the answer is “yes,” the adverb form is correct.

    The real PROBLEM with “quick” vs. “quickly” is that the adverb and adjective forms of “fast” are exactly the same. “Slow/fast” has become (incorrectly) acceptable as both the adjective pair AND the adverb pair.

    • J Gies

      Apologies for “hired-wired”–I just noticed the mistake. I was typing when someone walked into the room and distracted me, and I just resumed typing later. “hard-wired” is what I meant.

      • Lisa

        This is an excellent explanation, and the only reason I have not started a boisterous counter-campaign opposing the various “Drive Safe” campaigns around. I felt that there was something different about the word that I just couldn’t articulate.

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