Hold on tight – not tightly – to this lesson in words
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The rollercoaster clanks uphill. Reaches its crest. Tilts right, inches closer to the drop, the operator saying, “Hold on tightly.” The what? Tightly? Is that the right word? Too late for grammar, the world a blur as you contemplate adverbs.
Hold on tight! Now that makes sense. A punchier message. Ditto for other commands: Stay close. Sit up straight! (Exclamation mark optional.) Occasionally adverbs, those words that modify a verb, just as “occasionally” is doing with “lose” here, will lose their archetypal -ly ending.
Nobody says walk fastly, though once we did. Even “once” is a ly-less adverb, along with its temporal cousins of yesterday and tomorrow. Nouns in their own rights, of course, but never needing an -ly annex to act adverbially, just like “never” never does. Traffic signs say Drive Slow, not Slowly. This is the imperative voice, a municipal growl with hefty fines implicit, and ample reason to be clear. Succinct. Direct.
Adverbs can be a wild ride!Credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund
Away from kerbside edicts, however, or drill sergeants, we typically see adjectives (like typical) adopt their -ly guise to become adverbs. Sweetly. Fairly. Stephen King hated them vehemently, stating, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs. They’re like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day.”
Evidently, Dame Agatha missed the memo, plus Herman Melville and others whose prose oozes -ly specimens. If the Orient Express isn’t moving swiftly then the Pequod is pitching desultorily, and so on. Edgar Allan Poe echoed adverbs in his Tell-Tale Heart: “you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily …” But then slowly, slowly, like that rollercoaster, English gained its adverbial peak in the 1950s, the rules blurring ever since.
Somehow, by silent decree, that leaner tribe of wrong and tight has received an influx of other minimised recruits. Have you noticed? Reader Leanne Campbell flagged the trend, writing, “Copywriters love to eliminate the “ly” in adverbs. Now I just see “advertise local” instead of “locally”. What’s going on?”
Elizabeth Bennett was “so near laughing” in 1813.Credit:
Plenty, in short. I said the 1950s due to Dylan Thomas and Henry Green, both British writers being masters of the flat adverb, as the reduction is known. Do not go gentle, to quote Thomas. While in Green’s world, his characters spoke casual, watched weary. Leonard Cohen had a soft spot for the ly-less lyric, lending his own poetic texture. Then came Apple, with its maverick campaign of 1997: Think Different.
Consumers could read the slogan as a cheeky extension of Think – IBM’s tagline. Yet the Apple command rang deeper than that, and not more deeply. Rogue grammar is a fond trick in Adland, a bid to add more bite. Stickability. Here the breach had viewers thinking: “Different to what?” The comparative clarifier was removed, obliging the brain to close the circle.
This neural tickle, plus the extra verve on the page, have helped to popularise flat adverbs in recent decades. Just as Subway exhorts “Eat Fresh”, teens and TikTokkers will say things are real good, while you may tell your host “We sure had a nice time.” Indeed, most of us are flat-adverbing inadvertent, as that’s how osmotic the shift has been.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bennett, the Jane Austen heroine, was “so near laughing” in 1813 that I wonder if the joke is on those who carp too constant about this adverb trimming. Though one thing we should make loud and clear, or clarify loudly at least. Namely, there’s a big difference between working hard and hardly working.
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