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  • Writer's pictureMark Meier

A Grammatical Lament

It’s not very strong, this two-letter syllable, tacked on the end of a word. It’s just a small, quiet sound, increasingly muted as more and more speakers leave it unsaid. I’m talking about -ly, the unassuming suffix that usually marks an adverb. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only one who still notices and laments poor -ly’s absence. Case in point: I was sitting in an academic colloquium at UW-Madison. The moderator, a professor with a doctorate in English, was discussing the coming year. “What we’re going to do different this year,” she began. I cringed, but no one else even blinked. Didn’t they notice the huge gap after ‘different’? Another time, a teaching colleague told a joke at a faculty meeting and grinned. “Don’t take me serious,” he quipped. I want to shout “-ly. SeriousLY.” Alas, no one else seemed bothered by the lapse. In newspapers, on television, and in casual conversation, -ly is forgotten. It’s, “Come back quick”, or “Drive safe.” I even found a children’s counting book that celebrated ‘Seven hamsters playing nice.” When the adjective marker is left out of a children’s book, we can safely assume poor -ly is doomed. A friend of mine, a fellow writer and former member of my critique group, argues against using adverbs in writing as a general principle. He claims adverbs are weak and ineffective, and he urges writers to get rid of them altogether. He would rather see a character meander or stroll than walk slowly. He’s right, of course. Strong verbs are important for good writing. But I would never advocate the total removal of adverbs. Used judiciously, they are very useful words. Adverbs modify (or add to) verbs and adjectives. In reality, English speakers and writers still use adverbs whenever necessary. (Not counting the examples, I’ve used eleven adverbs and two adverb phrases so far.) So what grates is not the loss of adverbs, but their truncation. Have we grown too lazy to say the extra syllable in “come back quickly” or “drive safely?” I shudder to think so. Still as a linguist, I know that language is constantly changing. My voice is powerless to stop the tidal wave washing -ly out of existence. I’ll continue to ‘correct’ fellow writers and cringe when I hear the gap -ly should have filled. But there’s no denying -ly is dying. I, for one, shall mourn the passing.

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Jul 11, 2018

I'd be interested to hear what other writers think of this trend.

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