Friday, March 03, 2006

The Adverb is Dead; Long Live the Adjective!

A quick, one-question quiz: which of the following statements was uttered by a college-educated and internationally famous newsperson on a network television show?

“You did good!”

“The hot weather kind of snuck up on us.”

“People are debating whether the United States should have went to Iraq.”

Correct answer: all the above. (And yes, I am quoting from memory, but the trauma wrought by these dreadfully ungrammatical statements—ones that were made by people who should not only know better, but also recognize their responsibility to be good examples—has rendered me unable to recall exactly who said them, and when. Very well, the first one was Katie Couric speaking…)

And while we’re talking about English grammar, can anyone tell me what’s going on with the adverb? Lately, it seems the adjective has been creeping ever closer to the verb in what can only be described as a nasty, aggressive manner; its nefarious intent, obviously, is to completely displace, if not outright murder, a useful and descriptive part of speech.

Drive slow
Think quick!
The economy is real good right now.

No-one likes a smartie-pants. How many times did I hear that growing up? For most of my life, I’ve felt the need to apologize for speaking properly—or, at least, striving to—as if using good grammar and having a healthy respect for what is, arguably, the most richly variegated, broadly expressive, and flat-out beautiful language in human history is a bad thing. As if an appreciation for English and its amazing ability to remain steeped in tradition while still throwing open its muscular arms to embrace fresh, new words as regularly as fresh, new objects and ideas are conceived, is the hallmark of a nerdy word-wonk. Or worse, a snob.

Listen: it’s entirely possible to play by the rules and still understand, and use, colloquial and slang phrases, which I consider the growth hormones of the English language. As humans invent, discover, and ponder things that heretofore had not crossed the linguistic radar (radar! Now there’s a perfect example…), we’re compelled to come up with something to call those things. A new word is born, then its use becomes widespread, and in due time, Webster's and the OED come knocking.

Awwww…isn’t she adorable? So perfect, so unique—I’ve never heard one like it!

No, I’m all for new words, new phrases, and new ways of putting them together—if, and only if, the old way isn’t working any more, or if the new way injects a sentence with meaning or power beyond the reach of the former word, phrase, or arrangement.

Some of my favorite “new” words and terms:

Pimp my ride

Talk to the hand

Trash, used as a transitive verb: “That article completely trashed the Governor.”

Where do you get off? (Which, as opposed to inquiring about train stations, is simply a fresh way of declaring How dare you?)

Way, used as an adverb in place of “so” or “extremely”: “I am way sick of your pedantic, arrogant posturing, Deborah. Where do you get off?”

I confess: I harbor much fondness for new words and phrases that spring forth unabated from the exciting, energetic population segment that advertisers like to call “youth”, “immigrant”, and “urban”. I’ll also admit (or cop) to a deep-seated loathing for business-speak and marketing jargon. Illogical perhaps, and biased, I know; but all the same, I have to salute the originality of the former—a new word or phrase, or a new use for the same, arises when no appropriate alternative exists—and stick my tongue out at the mind-numbing corporate-sponsored (and, therefore, government-adopted) oversimplifications of the latter.

Some example of cringe-inducing business-speak:


Impact used as a verb: “How will the high unemployment rate impact the voters’ decisions?

Fun used as an adjective: “That was a fun convention!”

Reset, used as a noun: “You can’t find the rosemary shampoo because we did a reset on that shelf when all the herbal products were discontinued.”


What I most dislike about these words is their pretentious way of replacing perfectly good English words—words that were doing just fine, thank you—with ones that would seem to exclude, either unwittingly or knowingly, those who might not be part of the corporate world. Why, for example, would you resort to using impact as a verb when you can choose from the far superior (and often more specific) affect, influence, disturb, improve, or transform?

Whereas the other sort of new words, the ones with youth/immigrant/urban roots that I do like, are inclusive, illustrative, witty, and indispensable. I mean, what long-existing English phrase packs the wallop of Talk to the hand while also conveying the speaker’s utter indifference toward, and disdain for, his target, and offering a splendid visual to boot? Was there, is there, a better way to say stugats, which is an Italian-American corruption of the Italian words stunatta and cazzo that literally means stupid dick?

Returning to my original complaint, though, in matters of language, I think we really ought to learn the rules before bending them for fun and profit. And we should consider declaring certain territories—I’m thinking about news stories, both broadcast and print, as well as lessons, legal briefs, and complicated instructions for complex electronics—off-limits to million-dollar language-manglers, if for no other reasons than to set good examples for us all and reduce the frustration levels of my fellow word-wonks and Luddites.

After all, some of the current trends in communication, if followed to their logical conclusion, would have us winding up where we started as cavemen: pointing and grunting. Point-and-grunt…point-and-grunt…point-and-click.

Oh dear.


  1. I. Loved. This. Post.

    It was so original!


    Anyway, I'm fighting the war against the adverb-adjective switch by telling people that I'm doing "well" when they ask me how I am, which is usually a lie anyways but we all know they don't want the dirty truth. Especially when I'm doing just FABULOUSLY, because then they'd ask why, and that might make them feel BADLY about their own lives.

    I do have one question: what is the grammatical error in your second example at the top of the post? Is 'snuck' wrong? Should it be 'sneaked'? My OED says that 'snuck' is a past participle of 'sneak.' But I must admist that even that term confuses me.

    Much of my grammatical prowess is due to a dangerously powerful intuition. Rowr.

  2. Tart, are you saying I'm not allowed to write about my disdain for this ongoing pandemic of bad grammar because other people have already done so? Well, they haven't written about my disdain, only their own, right?

    Hell, methinks it's one of those things we should ALL be hammering into the ether at every opportunity. Repetition, repetition, etc.

    Now, you've really got my attention with snuck. My OED doesn't have it, but yeah, it's an old OED. As I understood it, the past, and past participle, of sneak were sneaked.

    I sneak chocolate into my diet at every opportunity.

    I sneaked into the kitchen last night and ate all the chocolate chips.

    Hardly a day has passed that I haven't sneaked around the house, looking for chocolate about which I might have forgotten.

    (All true statements, sadly...)

  3. brava, mia cara! my favorite examples of knowing the rules before breaking them are the sonnets of e.e. cummings. (i don't eschew caps to honor him, i'm merely a lazy git) i also despise the verbing of nouns. to parent? yuck. i do, however, recognise and cherish the vitality and dynamic nature of our native tongue. i ascribe the dumbing down of the written and spoken word to the absence of classic literature in core classes these days. without homer, sophocles, shakespeare, shelly, keats, yeats, marlowe, et al being taught how can we expect more from ourselves? although i recently had my hackles raised talking with a producer about a potential live gig. . .
    where's this gig in l.a. at?

    producer snot:
    it's where we don't end with prepositions.

    ok, where's this gig in l.a. at . . . motherfucker?

  4. i ascribe the dumbing down of the written and spoken word to the absence of classic literature in core classes these days. without homer, sophocles, shakespeare, shelly, keats, yeats, marlowe, et al being taught how can we expect more from ourselves?

    Couldn't agree more, Stephen. The best way to learn spelling, grammar--all facets of the English language, in fact--is to read it as written by the masters.

    Loved your response to the producer!

  5. loving it!

    sorry but though its slightly at a tangent... i recently heard parkinson (you know our beloved old 'parky'?) whilst interviewing peggy mitchell -who's real name i've sadly forgotten- use the 'word' BURGULARIZED.
    whats wrong the old common or garden burgled? or even robbed.
    is it the same sort of thing as maybe racialism as opposed to racism?
    am i or have i missed something?
    please help. i realise i lost vital brain power whilst pregnant, but as i'm now trying to remedy that talking and writing bad aint gonna help me now innit?

  6. keda, I know what you mean. I don't care for burglarize myself--it sounds a lot like the ridiculous "colorize" and "sizings" used in the fashion industry.

    Actually, though, it's an old-ish word (1871). Here's a link to a terrific source for information about word origins (in this case, burglarize:

    I agree with the authors that "burgle" is a hideous back-formation verb. Same thing goes for "swindle".

    One has to wonder why, when there are so many perfectly clear and useful words available, people resort to using buzzwords in formal or standard English? I'm all for slang, colloquialisms, and interesting new constructs used within the context of informal speech. But newsreaders should not be saying "should have went". Aaaargh!