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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IX. The Common Speech

5. The Adverb

ALL the adverbial endings in English, save -ly, have gradually fallen into decay; it is the only one that is ever used to form new adverbs. At earlier stages of the language various other endings were used, and some of them survive in a few old words, though they are no longer employed in making new words. The Anglo-Saxon endings were -e and -lice. The latter was, at first, merely an -e-ending to adjectives in -lic, but after a time it attained to independence and was attached to adjectives not ending in -lic. In early Middle English this -lice changed to -like, and later on to -li and -ly. Meanwhile, the -e-ending, following the -e-endings of the nouns, adjectives and verbs, ceased to be pronounced, and so it gradually fell away. Thus a good many adverbs came to be indistinguishable from their ancestral adjectives, for example, hard in to pull hard, loud in to speak loud, and deep in to bury deep (=Anglo-Saxon, deop-e). Worse, not a few adverbs actually became adjectives, for example, wide, which was originally the Anglo-Saxon adjective wid (=wide) with the adverbial -e-ending, and late, which was originally the Anglo-Saxon adjective loet (=slow) with the same ending.

The result of this movement toward identity in form was a confusion between the two classes of words, and from the time of Chaucer down to the eighteenth century one finds innumerable instances of the use of the simple adjective as an adverb. “He will answer trewe” is in Sir Thomas More; “and soft unto himself he sayd” in Chaucer; “the singers sang loud” in the Authorized Version of the Bible (Nehemiah xii, 42), and “indifferent well” in Shakespeare. Even after the purists of the eighteenth century began their corrective work this confusion continued. Thus one finds “the people are miserable poor” in Hume, “how unworthy you treated mankind” in the Spectator, and “wonderful silly” in Joseph Butler. To this day the grammarians battle against the amalgamation, still without complete success; every new volume of rules and regulations for those who would speak by the book is full of warnings against it. Among the great masses of the plain people, it goes without saying, it flourishes unimpeded. The cautions of the school-marm, in a matter so subtle and so plainly lacking in logic or necessity, are forgotten as quickly as her prohibition of the double negative, and thereafter the adjective and the adverb tend more and more to coalesce in a part of speech which serves the purposes of both, and is simple and intelligible and satisfying.

Charters gives a number of characteristic examples of its use: “wounded very bad,” “I sure was stiff,” “drank out of a cup easy,” “he looked up quick.” Many more are in Lardner: “a chance to see me work regular,” “I am glad I was lucky enough to marry happy,” “I beat them easy,” and so on. And others fall upon the ear every day: “he done it proper,” “he done himself proud,” “she was dressed neat,” “she was awful ugly,” “the horse ran O.K.,” “it near finished him,” “it sells quick,” “I like it fine,” “he et hoggish,” “she acted mean,” “he loved her something fierce,” “they keep company steady.” The bob-tailed adverb, indeed, enters into a large number of the commonest coins of vulgar speech. Near-silk, I daresay, is properly nearly-silk. The grammarians protest that “run slow” should be “run slowly.” But near-silk and “run slow” remain, and so do “to be in bad,” “it sure will help,” “to play it up strong” and their brothers. What we have here is simply an incapacity to distinguish any ponderable difference between adverb and adjective, and beneath it, perhaps, is the incapacity, already noticed in dealing with “it is me,” to distinguish between the common verb of being and any other verb. If “it is bad” is correct, then why should “it leaks bad” be incorrect? It is just this disdain of purely grammatical reasons that is at the bottom of most of the phenomena visible in vulgar American, and the same impulse is observable in all other languages during periods of inflectional decay. During the highly inflected stage of a language the parts of speech are sharply distinct but when inflections fall off they tend to disappear. The adverb, being at best the step-child of grammar—as the old Latin grammarians used to say, “Omnis pars orationis migrat in adverbium”—is one of the chief victims of this anarchy. John Horne Tooke, despairing of bringing it to any order, even in the most careful English, called it, in his “Diversions of Purley,” “the common sink and repository of all heterogeneous and unknown corruptions.”

Where an obvious logical or lexical distinction has grown up between an adverb and its primary adjective the unschooled American is very careful to give it its terminal -ly. For example, he seldom confuses hard and hardly, scarce and scarcely, real and really. These words convey different ideas. Hard means unyielding; hardly means barely. Scarce means present only in small numbers; scarcely is substantially synonymous with hardly. Real means genuine; really is an assurance of veracity. So, again, with late and lately. Thus, and American says “I don’t know, scarcely,” not “I don’t know, scarce”; “he died lately,” not “he died late.” But in nearly all such cases syntax is the preservative, not grammar. These adverbs seem to keep their tails largely because they are commonly put before and not after verbs, as in, for example, “I hardly (or scarcely) know,” and “I really mean it.” Many other adverbs that take that position habitually are saved as well, for example, generally, usually, surely, certainly. But when they follow verbs they often succumb, as in “I’ll do it sure” and “I seen him recent.” And when they modify adjectives they sometimes succumb, too, as in “it was sure hot.” Practically all the adverbs made of adjectives in -y lose the terminal -ly and thus become identical with their adjectives. I have never heard mightily used; it is always mighty, as in “he hit him mighty hard.” So with filthy, dirty, nasty, lowly, naughty and their cognates. One hears “he acted dirty,” “he spoke nasty,” “the child behaved naughty,” and so on. Here even standard English has had to make concessions to euphony. Cleanlily is seldom used; cleanly nearly always takes its place. And the use of illy and thusly is confined to ignoramuses.

Vulgar American, like all the higher forms of American and all save the most precise form of written English, has abandoned the old inflections of here, there and where, to wit, hither and hence, thither and thence, whither and whence. These fossil remains of dead cases are fast disappearing from the language. In the case of hither (=to here) even the preposition has been abandoned. One says, not “I came to here,” but simply “I came here.” In the case of hence, however, from here is still used, and so with from there and from where. Finally, it goes without saying that the common American tendency to add -s to such adverbs as towards is carried to full length in the vulgar language. One constantly hears, not only somewheres and forwards, but even noways and anyways, where’-bouts and here’bouts. Here we have but one more example of the movement toward uniformity and simplicity. Anyways is obviously fully supported by sideways and always.