77. Adverbially Farewell

yol 5Your Own Language, 5: Adverbially Farewell

I am here to present a eulogy to an old and treasured friend, the suffix -ly.

As adversity separates the men from the boys, the suffix -ly separates the adverbs from the adjectives. At least, it used to.

As a matter of full disclosure, I am not a linguist. I am fascinated by languages, but I haven’t taken the time to learn them. I once spoke two semesters worth of Hindi and I can still embarrass myself in German, but my studies have mostly been as an onlooker. I have read several dozen books purporting to explain linguistics, but books by real linguists make tensor calculus look easy.

Still, I can expound on the really low level stuff.

Two factors are at work in language, position and word endings. Latin was not positional. Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) could be stated in any word order without losing meaning because the form of each word defines its function.

English can be positional. If we say the boy ate the dog, we assume it was a hot dog because word order tells us who was the eater and who was the eaten. If we said the flic ate the flak, we don’t need a dictionary to know who did the eating; word order tells us.

But I also said eater and eaten. These are constructions which depend on endings, not word order. English swings both ways. If I say the eater ate the eaten, we all say, “So what?” But if I say the eaten ate the eater, I am speaking nonsense. Or maybe I meant that the one who is usually the eaten ate the one who is usually the eater, in which case we know we have witnessed an ironic reversal of circumstances.

It can be complicated, but let’s keep it simple. Adverbs typically end in -ly; adjectives don’t. (Ugly is the exception).

Here are three quick nonsense examples, quickly presented. (Okay, four.)

  • “The rapid river flowed rapidly through the canyon.”
  • “The beautiful sunset reflected beautifully off the cathedral.”
  • “The angry citizen spoke angrily to his Congressman.”

Once upon a time and place, say Oklahoma in 1962, teachers taught this distinction and expected student to know it. Even then, however, only word nerds like me continued to make the distinction after the ink had dried on the final exam.

Apparently anchormen never got the word. Ad men say whatever they want, truth and grammar notwithstanding, so they don’t count.

In 2016, if I hear someone making the distinction between adjective and adverb, my ears perk up, it is so unexpected.

I think it is fair to say that Steve Jobs drove the final nail in the coffin. When he urged us all to “Think different”, he made it official that even smart guys don’t need grammar. Now anyone who puts up a sign reading “Shop local” can say, “If it is good enough for Jobs . . .“

Okay, true confession. This isn’t actually the rant it appears to be. I will continue to fight the battle of the adverb personally, but the war is over, and I know it.

Actually, it probably doesn’t matter. I know what Jobs means from context and word order. Losing the -ly ending probably won’t make any difference in the English language. It is just one of the natural ongoing changes that occur in all languages.

Once, in post 53, I said that, as users of the English language facing change, we have only one obligation. If the change is stupid, don’t use it. The loss of -ly isn’t stupid. It just hurts my ears.


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