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Verbal Energy

Sit tight, drive safe, and watch for flat adverbs

An article on women in the CIA offers, in passing, a grammar lesson.

By Ruth Walker / October 11, 2012



One of the first experts in the US intelligence community to warn against Al Qaeda, back in 1993, was a senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst named Gina M. Bennett – who has five children. She later wrote a book titled "National Security Mom: Why 'Going Soft' Will Make America Strong." She's quoted as saying, "I was struck by the idea that what I do at home and what I do at work are very similar.... I felt that all I needed to know about national security I learned from my kids."

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It puts a new spin on the concept of a "mommy track," doesn't it?

She was mentioned in Eli Lake's recent Newsweek/Daily Beast piece, "The CIA's Se­cret Weapons," about the bright, dedicated women who serve as CIA "targeters," including "Jen," who tracked Osama bin Laden.

Here's Mr. Lake: "Before the raid, [Jen] briefed the SEALs on what they should expect to encounter in Abbottabad – down to details like whether a door inside the compound would open inwardly or outwardly. (She got it right.)"

But, speaking of details, something in that paragraph is not right: the two adverbs. "Inward" and "outward" would have sufficed.

Welcome to the world of flat adverbs. Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, explains them in a video at Merriam-Webster.com. (This is the kind of thing we words nerds watch instead of cat videos.) Adverbs modify, or describe, verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They are often, but not always, formed by adding "ly" to the ending of an adjective. Flat adverbs, on the other hand, lack an "ly" and are identical with their adjectival twins. A swift runner runs swiftly, but a fast runner runs fast.

Flat adverbs used to be much more common, Ms. Brewster notes, citing examples from Samuel Pepys ("horrid angry") and Daniel Defoe ("violent hot"). Her video begins with a story about how she'd told a departing guest, "Drive safe," whereupon someone else chimed in with the "ly."

I probably would have said, "Drive safely." But "drive safe" sounds acceptable as an idiom meaning, "stay safe as you drive." Slow is another flat adverb that divides usage experts. Many writers prefer the "ly" form, especially right after the verb. "He drove slowly through the town." But slow has been used adverbially for centuries.

Some flat adverbs seem to work in vernacular expressions ("Hold on tight!"), but cry out for the "ly" form in other contexts: "In his new role, he plays a tightly wound detective."

Sometimes the "ly" forms are simply wrong: "He looked longly and hardly at her before he said a word." Hardly isn't the right word, and longly isn't a word at all.

Some words have two adverbial forms, with subtle differences between them. "He answered the question wrong" connotes a narrow, technical incorrectness. But wrongly, as in "wrongly accused," gets beyond "incorrectly" to "unjustly."

The inwardly/outwardly example above is another bundle of nuance. Inward and outward can correctly refer to the opening of physical doors. Both are adjectives, too. "His outward calm belied his inward distress."

But inwardly and outwardly mean something else altogether. The first means "in a secret or hidden way." The second means "to outward appearance." Similarly, someone on a metaphorical upward path is said to be "upwardly mobile."

And I'm glad to know doors have opened upward for the women of the CIA.

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