Banned words and flat adverbs

‘Banning’ words is not an impulse I can relate to. My recent post at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, The vogue for banning words, takes issue with this popular practice:

Lists of words to ban make effective clickbait, because people are very conscious of language usage and can be wary of having their own usage policed. So they want to find out what words and phrases they should be avoiding and collectively hating. Many will join in, sounding off about words they’d like to see banned. The logic seems to be that because they simply don’t like a word or phrase, no one should ever, ever use it.

It was once customary for language critics such as Fowler, Partridge, and Gowers to warn writers about ‘vogue words’ which had become too fashionable for their own good. Nowadays the convention – even at Time magazine – is for ‘banning’ them, whatever that might mean. I find it reactionary and unhelpful.


My next post at Macmillan, Flat adverbs are exceeding fine, considers the status of adverbs like slow, far, wrong and bright, which lack the –ly we might expect from adverbs and which are unfairly condemned for that reason. The censure directed at them owes to the usual suspects:

[P]rescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, being overly attached to Latin grammar, thought flat adverbs were really adjectives being used incorrectly, and warned against their use. Before this, flat adverbs were more common and varied than they are now. Exceeding is a good example. If we browse Daniel Defoe’s writing we find such phrases as: weak and exceeding thirsty; it rained exceeding hard. Today this usage has an archaic feel.

Those early grammarians’ misguided judgements were passed down for generations. Their influence is felt today not only in the absence of many flat adverbs that were formerly routine, but also in the uncertainty and intolerance towards surviving ones…

What I mean by intolerance is, for example, people ‘fixing’ street signs that read Drive Slow, under the mistaken impression that it’s ungrammatical. In the post I also look briefly at whether and how some pairs of adverbs (one flat, one not) have diverged in usage, such as hard/hardly and safe/safely.

To browse my older Macmillan posts, you can visit the full archive here.

drive slow slowly grammar - weird al yankovic fixes road sign(Image from video: ‘Weird Al Yankovic fixes a road sign’)

6 Responses to Banned words and flat adverbs

  1. astraya says:

    I searched Google Ngram Viewer for ‘drive slow/ly’ and ‘think quick/ly’.
    ‘Drive slowly’ outnumbers ‘drive slow’ by about 9 to 1, with the former growing strongly over the last 25 years and the latter declining slowly.
    ‘Think quickly’ outnumbers ‘think quick’ by about 6 to 1, with the former gaining moderately over the last 25 years and the latter remaining steady.
    (With due acknowledgement of what Ngrams includes and what it doesn’t.)

  2. zanyvicar says:

    I agree with you 99.9% on the silliness of banning words. (As I recently said on my own blog, banning a vogue word because it’s overused would be like closing a highway because too many people drive on it.) However, surely a case can be made for banning the word “inflammable”? I’m fine with a word having two opposite meanings, but not if it’s used in safety documentation, whereas “flammable” and “nonflammable” would eliminate ambiguity.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Good point, zanyvicar. There’s a strong case for dropping the word inflammable. I don’t use it, and I prefer to see flammable/nonflammable in safety and technical documents. If I were creating a style sheet that warranted treatment of the item, I would proscribe inflammable for the reason you mention. ‘Banning’ it, however, would require omnipotence, and efforts to do so have failed so far.

  3. […] pedantry is a common condition, often directed at public language like song lyrics and road signs. The internet is awash with self-anointed experts and bots […]

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