Grammar in Memoirs: What Are Flat Adverbs?

list of flat adverbs in squashed font

I learn a lot about people’s current grammar concerns from the Facebook page “Grammar Matters,” which I help to admin. Recently someone asked why adverbs are being sloppily replaced by adjectives. Examples:

  • Drive slow.
  • Act quick.
  • Play safe.
  • And the kicker: You did amazing.

The complaint was that the “ly” is missing. The word answers the question “how,” which calls for an adverb. How should I drive? How should I act? How should I play? How did I do? These people wanted the adjectives slow, quick, safe and amazing replaced by the adverbs slowly, quickly, safely and amazingly so that the phrases would read: drive slowly, act quickly, play safely, you did amazingly.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Adjectives vs. Flat Adverbs

“They’re not adjectives,” other members of the page schooled the complainers. “Those are flat adverbs.”

According to the MacMillan Dictionary Blog, “flat adverbs may sound less formal, but grammatically they’re fine.” The blogger explains it further:

“Indeed, flat adverbs have a venerable history. Centuries ago in Old English, they were marked by inflections (usually –e), which were gradually dropped. This left the adverbs resembling adjectives, so –ly was sometimes added to mark them more explicitly as adverbs again. And so we ended up with pairs like bright and brightly, slow and slowly, soft and softly, wrong and wrongly.”

Keep in mind that flat adverbs are also adjectives. You are a “safe driver”—here, safe is an adjective describing the noun driver. The blogger further notes that the pairs are “sometimes interchangeable (drive safe/safely); in other cases their meanings have diverged, as with late and lately, right and rightly, hard and hardly. We might kick a ball hard, but if we hardly kick it we mean something quite different. Sometimes one form appears in certain idioms and expressions while the other form does duty elsewhere.”

Our Approach to Flat Adverbs

At Write My Memoirs, do we think that flat adverbs have earned their place in formal writing and, specifically for our purposes, in memoir writing? As you may know from taking our Writing and Grammar Course, we approach formal writing pragmatically. We apply grammar rules as they are generally regarded by people who make it a point to use proper grammar. That means people who know just enough about grammar but not more than that.

What do we mean by that? Flat adverbs are a good example. Most people who believe they use proper grammar will prefer drive slowly or shine brightly, choosing the traditional adverb safely over the flat adverb safe. So our editors at Write My Memoirs advise writers to mostly avoid flat adverbs. However, if you’re writing dialogue, you did amazing might sound more natural than you did amazingly so, in that case, you might want to choose the flat adverb.

English grammar is always a moving target!

Memoir Writing Tip: Avoid Parentheses

Meme about use of parentheses

No matter how you’re structuring your memoir, I can predict one thing about it: you don’t need parentheses to write a good memoir.

Now, I’m not talking about brackets, which look like this: [ ]. In academic writing and for other reasons, you may need to use brackets. Let’s say you’re quoting a note someone wrote to you, and you want the reader to know that the word spelled incorrectly is from the original note rather than your typo. To indicate that, after the word you can use: [sic].

But ordinary parentheses look like this: ( ). They come in handy when you’re trying to give the reader information pertinent enough to include at that moment of reading but extraneous enough that it sort of interrupts the flow. Enclosing that information within parentheses lets the reader know that you are aware it’s not directly related to what they just read.

Why Writers Use Parentheses

Memoir authors and other writers use parentheses for one of three bad reasons:

  1. The information is essential, but the writer is trying to wedge it into the wrong spot. This is lazy writing. As you’re writing, something has come to mind that is tangentially related to the topic at hand, but it would work much better somewhere else.
  2. The information is so non-essential that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. You’re indulging yourself with something you want to include that has little to do with the narrower memoir topic.
  3. The writer is just a parentheses person, and the parentheses serve as a crutch. We all tend to have our go-to punctuation, whether it’s an em dash, a semicolon, a comma, or parentheses. By relying heavily on em dashes and parentheses to set off phrases and clauses, you’re just revealing that you don’t know how to use commas. I admit to being a fan of what these days has become the hardworking em dash; I also like mixing it up and not relying on the same punctuation all the time. But so often parentheses and em dashes are the writer’s way of not having to figure out where commas would go.

Examples of Parentheses

When I google examples of parentheses use, I see sentences that I would edit to drop the parentheses. So let’s do that exercise together. I’m taking these examples either verbatim or edited from grammar.monster.com and grammar.yourdictionary.com. I have nothing against these websites; they’re just two that came up in my search.

Here’s a justified use of parentheses for some audiences, although it can be condescending if the target reader already knows the explanation. The information contained within the parentheses gives a quick explanation without taking up its own sentence:
Sometimes numerals (1, 2, 3) are used instead of writing out the numbers (one, two, three).

Often, you can’t express the thought as succinctly without the parentheses. Still, unless you’re under a restrictive word count, I don’t consider that a good enough reason to use the parentheses.
I got a great deal on a used camper (just $500).
I would rewrite it:
At just $500, the used camper I bought was a great deal.
Or:
I got a great deal on a used camper, which cost me just $500.
Even the em dash works better, I think:
I got a great deal on a used camper—just $500.

Take this quote from H.L. Mencken:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
This is the use I see the most. All it does is avoid commas or using two sentences instead of one. Why? I have no idea. Mencken sticks “hence” in there, which connects the parenthetical to the rest of the sentence. Why also set it off so dramatically? Another problem is that “hence” should be enclosed in commas. I would edit it to be:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and, hence, clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

One last example:
This month’s sales figures are sure to wow you. (Chances are, you’ll be really impressed.)
Oh, come on! Repeating what you just said in a new way is the worst reason to use parentheses. The parentheses mean you’re admitting that the sentence is completely unnecessary.

I urge you to look over your memoir and see whether you can eliminated any parentheses. I bet you’ll find at least a few instances.

Like these tips? You’ll love our grammar course. Just $39.

Grammar Help: Subjunctive/Conditional Tense

As we get closer to offering a complete online grammar course here at Write My Memoirs, I want to give you a sneak peek at some of the topics we’ll be covering. The subjunctive tense, also called the conditional tense, is a minor grammar point in real life and conversation. But when you put your name as author on a book, you want your words to reflect current best practices in grammar and writing. So let’s go over this.

The subjunctive tense is a verb tense just like present, past and future. Instead of concerning a time perspective, however, the subjunctive tense applies to any hypothetical situation. Typically, you can identify a hypothetical situation by the use of a word like “if,” “suppose” or “imagine.” When you’re just imagining something might occur, or you’re wondering whether it could happen, rather than the singular “was” you should use the past tense plural “were” to construct this type of sentence, even when the subject is singular.

Probably the most easily recognized example is the phrase, “If I were you.” In any other context, you’d pair the singular pronoun “I” with the verb “was” to indicate past tense. You’d say, “I was going to ask you a question,” or “I was happy that we had a nice day for the picnic.” It’s not natural to say “I were…,” but it does sound natural in the phrase “If I were you” because it’s correct. You’re imagining “if I were you.” If it’s not hypothetical, you’d say, “I’m pretty sure that I was you in my past life.” In that case, you’re stating an assumption, not posing a hypothetical. Another recognizable example of the correct construction is the song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man.”

So if I were going to make sure I learned the finer points of grammar, I would practice the conditional/subjunctive tense. Suppose a man were to sign up on Write My Memoirs, and imagine that a woman were intending to do the same—they both would be welcome here, where correct grammar is always appreciated!

 

My “Strongly-Expressed” Mandate: No Hyphens After Adverbs!

Sometimes a grammar error seems to catch on as if it’s contagious. I suppose people see something in writing, think they’ve been doing it wrong and obliviously copy the error. This is how these epidemics spread. I’ll begin to notice the error more often and in more respectable places, and then finally just about everywhere. We all have our grammar pet peeves, and mine intensify when the error starts to blanket the universe. This is currently happening with hyphens following adverbs.

The key term in this blog’s headline, Strongly-Expressed, provides the example of the erroneously inserted hyphen. Strongly is an adverb, and an adverb’s entire job is to modify. That’s what adverbs do. They modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Sometimes they modify an entire clause. They don’t need a hyphen to do their job. Let’s stuff a sentence with adverbs and see what we have:

Luckily, a genuinely nice person found Lola’s wildly colorful jacket and very kindly immediately returned it to her before Lola had a chance to miss it too desperately or to sob uncontrollably at discovering it inexplicably gone.

Luckily: modifies the clause that follows
Genuinely: modifies the adjective nice. How nice? Genuinely nice.
Wildly: modifies the adjective colorful. How colorful? Wildly colorful.
Very: modifies the adverb kindly. How kindly? Very kindly.
Kindly: modifies the verb returned. How was it returned? Kindly.
Immediately: modifies the verb returned. How else was it returned? Immediately.
Too: modifies the adverb desperately. How desperately? Too desperately.
Desperately: modifies the verb miss. Miss in what way? Desperately.
Uncontrollably: modifies the verb sob. Sob in what way? Uncontrollably.
Inexplicably: modifies the verb missing. In what way was it gone? Inexplicably.

The error of my obsession occurs when the adverb modifies an adjective. In the sample sentence, the error would be to write “a genuinely-nice person” and “her wildly-colorful jacket.” That hyphen is not just unnecessary; it’s wrong. My guess is that it grew from the correct construction of hyphenating a two-word thought with an adjective or noun as the first word. I just did that—two-word. Here’s a sentence full of word duos with correct hyphens:

We typically arrive at each data-driven decision after a late-night, full-team, anxiety-filled session that leaves all of us mentally exhausted and emotionally drained but more closely knit within our committee as well as able to forge close-knit ties to the greater community.

In that example, the first word of the hyphenated pairs is either an adjective or a noun, whereas there is no hyphenation in mentally exhausted and emotionally drained, because in both cases an adverb is modifying a verb. I used both closely knit and close-knit to further illustrate the distinction.

If you go around hyphenating adverb-starting word pairs, I’m begging you to please stop. If you’re wondering whether the hyphen is correct and you should start using it, the answers are no and no. If I’m telling you something you already know and you would never insert a hyphen after an adverb, thank you so much and keep up the good work!