Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Drive Fastly

A law-abiding driver I know encountered a sign that cautioned him to “Drive Slowly.” Never one to waste letters, he asked me whether the sign shouldn’t read “Drive Slow.” Never one to commit myself, I suggested that either slow or slowly would be correct. 

That is not my opinion only, but also that of others who actually receive money for sitting around thinking about such things.  One of them, Bryan A. Garner, opines in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: "Slow has long been treated as an immediate adverb, i.e. one not requiring the -ly suffix. It is ill-informed pedantry to insist that slow can only be an adjective. Though slowly is more common and is certainly correct, slow is often just as good. Let rhythm and euphony be your guides."

Accordingly, “Drive Slowly” sounds fine to me. It might sound even better and be more effective to admonish the hurried driver to “Go Slow.”  As Rex Stout the creator of Nero Wolfe (that portly detective who cavils at using contact as a verb) said: "Not only do I approve of the idiom 'Go Slow,' but if I find myself with people who do not, I leave quick."

If you drive the highways of Texas, you may spot an official road sign urging you to “Drive Friendly.” That sounds mighty neighborly, but most grammarians would wince at the use of the adjective friendly as if it were an adverb. There are quite a few adjectives—leisurely, lowly, saintly—spelled with –ly, tempting people to use them as adverbs, even though they aren’t. But trying to make proper adverbs out of them pushes one into absurd and virtually unpronounceable territory.  “Drive Friendlily”?  Approach such usage gingerlily.

The homely Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who moves more slow these days than in the past and likes to think things over as leisurelily as he can, managed to scholarlily scribble these words:

        To use the right term
        Take it easy, not easily.
        Be sure you act firm,
        Not firmly—that’s weasely.

        You must behave mean,
        And not ever meanly,
        And always come clean,
        Don’t try to come cleanly.
        If you’re in a saloon,
        Most inopportunely,
        You’d better leave soon,
        Or perhaps even soonly.


  1. Cotton Mather, famous, loquacious, industrious Puritan clergyman (author of 400 books--mostly pamphlets) who posted a sign above his study door warning visitors to BE SHORT.

    He could have had another sign for when he was not in: BE BACK SHORTLY.

  2. I used to tell people I'd "be back shortly" and then add, "I can't help it -- I'm only 5'4"!!" Heh.
    I frequentLY feel compelled, as the office Grammar Nazi, to ask anyone who complains of "feeling badly" what happened to their fingertips and the nerve endings thereon ...