2015/7 Flat adverbs: acceptable today?

Here is the latest feature by a member of our project in the new issue ENGof English Today. It is republished on this blog with permission fromCambridge University Press, which owns the copyright to this piece. The original is available at Cambridge Journals Online. To join the discussion, please respond on our website in the comments-box of the announcement of this feature.

Flat adverbs: acceptable today?


A further opportunity to contribute material for the Bridging the Unbridgeable project of the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

In February 2015, Catherine Bennett published a piece called “Modern Tribes: the grammar pedant” in The Guardian Online.1The article focused on so-called usage problems – instances of divided usage concerning grammar, vocabulary or spelling that many people have strong opinions about. (The previous sentence is a good example of such a usage problem: can you indeed end a sentence with a preposition, for instance?) The article itself was not very interesting in its own right: it dealt with all the “old chestnuts”, like less/fewer, disinterested/uninterested and of course the split infinitive. What was interesting, though, was that within a little over ten hours, 84 comments had come in. In the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, we are interested in new usage problems rather than the ones we have been reading about for around two hundred years. So I scoured the comments with great interest. I’ve already written about what I found in a post on the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog:2 there were not many new or any very striking complaints, but what I do find of interest is that no-one mentioned the flat adverb. Does this mean that flat adverbs are no longer considered problematical today?

“Flat adverbs” are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as follows: “Not distinguished by a characteristic ending, as an adverb which has the same form as an adjective or substantive, or a substantive used as an adjective” (OED, s.v. flat, adj., adv. and n3). In other words, flat adverbs are adverbs that lack the adverbial marker –ly, and an example is: That’s a dangerous curve; you’d better go slow . The example is from Mittins et al.’s Attitudes to English Usage (1970), which reports on a survey carried out in the late 1960s about people’s attitudes to selected sentences with usage problems. The survey also included the sentence, He did it quicker than he’d ever done it before, in which quicker should have read more quickly according to the rules of normative grammar. Mittins et al. provided a league table of the usage problems they investigated, showing the general acceptability for each individual item. Unfortunately, this list included only the second sentence, since for the first one they had asked for (and received) only incomplete data.

The sentence He did it quicker received a general acceptability of 42 per cent at the time, and in order to see to what extent the usage had increased in acceptability over the years, we repeated the survey in the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog. The new results show that the sentence reached an overall acceptability of nearly 75 per cent, although it is still considered unacceptable in formal writing and marginally acceptable in formal speech (the results can be viewed online).3 We also asked readers about the sentence, you’d better go slow: this seems to be almost fully acceptable today, though the usage is considered somewhat less acceptable in formal speech (10.7% of the votes) and formal writing (2.4% of the votes); only one vote went to the category “unacceptable under any circumstances”.

There is, however, a serious problem here: the total number of votes for the sentence He did it quicker was very small indeed (altogether only 19), while that for you’d better go slow was considerably higher (84 in all), although not really high enough to obtain reliable results. This puts any conclusions about current acceptability of these sentences, especially the first one, on very shaky ground. I had hoped to be able to use the data for an article I’m writing together with Morana Lukač, another member of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, called, “Flat adverbs and the English usage guide tradition”. In this article we are going to compare views on the flat adverb that have been expressed in English usage guides since the earliest days of the tradition with opinions of actual users today. In order to get more data for this article, I’d therefore like to invite readers of English Today to complete a short (anonymous) questionnaire about their views on the flat adverb. In this survey we would also like to know whether native and non-native speakers of particular varieties of English have differing opinions about the acceptability of the flat adverb, and further whether age and perhaps even gender play a role in whether the flat adverb is considered acceptable or not. One question on which the Bridging the Unbridgeable project is often consulted is the status of thusly: “Is it now a word?” is the question asked.4 Or is it an example of hypercorrection, because thus is an adverb in its own right, and doesn’t need to be marked overtly as such? Finally, we will of course also ask readers of English Today for their pet linguistic peeves. The survey may be found in the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog, just below the banner, at bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today.


1See http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/28/grammar-pedant-modern-tribes-catherine-bennett (accessed 6 May 2015).

2See https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/2015/02/28/grammar-pedants-online/.

3See the link https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/usage-polls/: the sentence he did it quicker is part of usage poll 7, and you’d better go slow of usage poll 11.

4See https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/2013/10/31/thusly-now-a-word/.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2015) Flat adverbs: acceptable today?. English Today, 31:3, 9–10. Cambridge University Press. (September 2015). doi:10.1017/S0266078415000188.

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