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The Language Perfectionist: Adjective-Adverb Advisory

A common grammatical error is the use of an adjective when the adverbial form of the word is required. Consider these examples, found via online search:

  • “Lake-goers should avoid boating at night and should go slow any time of day, especially the first time they get on the lake after the flood.”
  • “The clear, science-based judgment must be that menthol cigarettes are not more harmful than non-menthol cigarettes…. A menthol cigarette is, well, just another cigarette, and should be treated no different.”
  • “Just try to eat healthy most of the week, and relax when you are at social gatherings.”

The correct phrasing for each of these sentences is as follows: “go slowly,” “treated no differently,” and “eat healthfully.”

The above guidance is simple and straightforward. But things can get tricky.

Some people commit the opposite mistake of using an adverb when the adjectival form is correct. Garner’s Modern American Usage cites this erroneous example: “Chop the onions finely.” Here, finely should be fine. Garner explains: “The sentence does not describe the manner of chopping, but the things chopped. The onions are to become fine.”

Similarly, many people say “I feel badly.” The individual who is experiencing sadness or regret should instead say “I feel bad.” Unless, as some language gurus joke, one has a medical condition that has diminished the sensation in one’s fingertips.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.