Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

OK, Dylan Thomas gets a pass, but if he were still in school and that were an assignment, his teacher would probably take off points. It should read, “Do not go gently …”

Right?

A friend of mine recently mentioned she’s seen a lot of misuse of adverbs:

  • He doesn’t take it serious.
  • I did it so quick, I think I messed up.

She’s noticed it in newspapers and magazines, among TV anchors and reporters, and in advertising (Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, for example, or Subway’s “Eat fresh”), as well as in day-to-day conversation (“That was a real good party” or even, you know, “That was a wicked good party”). That –ly we add to an adjective to turn it into an adverb might as well not even exist for some folks—people who should know better.

She’s right, of course. Plenty of writers and speakers have gotten lazy. But as I got all ready to rage, rage against adverb abuse, I discovered something interesting.

Not all adverbs end in –ly. And sometimes that’s as it should be.

Indeed, in centuries past, one rarely saw an –ly adverb (examples from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage):

  • I was horrid angry, and would not go (Samuel Pepys, diary, 29 May 1667)
  • The weather was so violent hot (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719)
  • The five ladies were monstrous fine (Jonathan Swift, The Journal to Stella, 6 Feb. 1712)
  • I will not be extreme bitter (William Wycherly, The Country Wife, 1675)

These are what we call flat adverbs. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Originally such adverbs had not been identical with adjectives; they had been marked by case endings—usually a dative –e [it’s a German thing]—but over the course of Middle English the endings disappeared. The 18th-century grammarians … could not 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.”

The fact is, it’s sometimes correct usage:

  • That sure was good, honey.
  • Please sit up straight.
  • Those birds are seldom seen in these parts.

In the delightful (that is, when I’m in agreement with her) Grammar Girl blog, we’re told, “Much as some sticklers would like these sentences to be … incorrect … flat adverbs are real, and you can use them—really. Various style guides give many examples of bona fide flat adverbs. Here’s a short list: far, fast, hard, slow, quick, straight, clean, close, deep, and fine.”

Often you have a choice (as in slow or slowly) but a few flat adverbs (fast and soon, for example) have survived as the only option. You wouldn’t say fastly or soonly, but songwriter Jackson Browne has a song that opens with the line “Walking slow down the avenue in my old neighborhood” and though a purist might insist on “walking slowly,” the line is grammatically correct as is.

But that brings us back to adverbial mistakes. The list of flat adverbs is somewhat fluid, but it’s still finite. “He doesn’t take it serious” isn’t flat adverb use—it’s wrong. “Think different” is wrong, too, but it’s done for effect. And Dylan Thomas? Artistic license.

The rest of y’all need to straighten up.

Tweet: As I got all ready to rage, rage against adverb abuse, I discovered something.
Tweet: Not all adverbs end in –ly. And sometimes that’s as it should be.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted 6 December, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Preach it! Seriously.
    p.s. Drive safe!

    • Jamie
      Posted 6 December, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Hahahah. Good one. :)

  2. Posted 6 December, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Oh, and on the drive this morning, an NPR reporter said (and this one always sounds off to me), “In (insert quaint New England town name), good-paying jobs are hard to find.” It seems to me that “well-paying” would be right. Because a job doesn’t pay good. Help, please.

    • Jamie
      Posted 6 December, 2011 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      Yes, I’d think well-paying. It’s still awkward. A rewrite might be in order.

  3. Erica Wagner
    Posted 25 July, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    It still bugs me when I see someone describing something that is clearly an action with a “flat” adverb when a conventional one (like slowly) is available. It’s one thing when the author is writing dialog or if a writer or speaker is shooting for a colloquial voice (no one is going to fault Baxter Black, cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian, for saying something along the lines of “time passed real slow”) or if the phrase in question has become an idiom or if its in a period poem or in song lyrics. There is also the issue of whether an “adverb” is actually defining a position rather than the act of getting into a position, and so is really an adjective (such as “he leaned in close.”)

    But I find it jarring when someone uses an unnecessary “flat” adverb in a context where colloquial speech is neither appropriate nor expected, such as a newscast, an editorial, or even in the middle of a work of fiction where the narrative voice has not been in this tone up until now. I assume the writer is either being careless or really doesn’t know the formal conventions.

    • jamiechavez
      Posted 28 July, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      I so agree. And I particularly love that you mention Baxter Black, cowboy poet and former large animal veterinarian. I have one of his books. :)

  4. Steve Morris
    Posted 13 March, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    All this is purely academic, because Dylan Thomas is not failing his grammar at all. His grammar was immaculate, as his prose works show. He was using a dialect phrase “gone gentle” used in Carmarthenshire. There are wild mountain ponies in that area, and when a farmer starts to tame a wild pony, he “gentles” it. When the process is complete, the pony is said to have “gone gentle” i.e. become tame. “Gentle” is not, therefore, being used in an (incorrect) adverbial manner.

    • Posted 15 March, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this explication, Steve. I was just using a familiar phrase with humor to illustrate a bigger point. No aspersions were intended to be cast.

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