Adverbs, adjectives and other scary-sounding terms

Welcome back to “Grammar Snob Monday,” my nod to my inner (oh, okay, my outer) grammar geek. After reading last week’s post, one of my closest friends commented that her biggest peeve is when people of language authority (mainly television journalists and other screen media types) succumb to the larger society’s grammar lapses.

Her example:  He jumped over those hurdles so quick, I couldn’t see his feet.

 The problem with this sentence is the word “quick.” It’s an adjective (meaning it helps to describe a noun…a thing, or person, or place), but it’s being used as an adverb (a word that helps to highlight a verb – action word – or even an adjective).

In this case, the word quick is theoretically modifying the word jumped.  It’s describing how he jumped – quick – and you guessed it, it’s wrong. A person doesn’t jump quick, a person jumps quickly. If anything, quick can modify the word jump when used as a noun, a thing: He took a quick jump into the pool. Or it can modify “he” in a different construction: He was quick when he jumped. (Both are inelegant examples, I know, but grammatically correct.)

Again, like last week’s message, we all know what “he jumped quick” means, but for someone who makes a living using words, that type of glaring error grates on the nerves of those of us who count ourselves among the grammar geeks of the world. Well, let me amend that statement. Yes, it grates on our nerves, but worse, when a “professional” uses incorrect language, it teaches the rest of the unknowing world that it’s acceptable. It’s not.

Language does change over time, both spoken and written. Words are added, spellings are changed, and I suppose adjectives can mutate into adverbs. People spend their lives studying the ebb and flow of language shifts, after all. But those changes take place at a relatively slow pace, and if you want to be taken seriously in a professional setting, you need to pay attention to what’s considered correct in that given moment of time.

Currently, at this moment in time, the example my friend cited is wrong, and word professionals (whether cable TV anchors or storytellers) should be mindful of setting a correct example for others. I mean, you don’t want to go into a job interview with your dream company and say something like, “Yeah, uh, I did good in school.” (We’ll save “good” and “well” – two of the worst offenders in the adjective/adverb swap category – for another time.)

Now, I should clarify that storytellers have much more leeway in this area than journalists, depending on the circumstances. For example, if you’re being interviewed by Oprah as the next big author, you’ll want to comport yourself as a professional and use proper speech. But if you’re creating a character with a certain background, it’s okay to throw the grammar rules away when you’re in that character’s point of view, if it fits that character’s profile. In fact, varying speech patterns is one of the most effective ways to differentiate one character from another – both in thought and speech.

Even for the most knowledgeable in grammar, however, conversational speech often ignores the rules. Conversational speech is more often sloppy than correct. Sentences are fragmented and chopped off – by emotion or another person’s speech. It fascinates me, and sometimes I find myself punctuating conversations in my head, just for fun. (Hey, I already acknowledged I’m weird!)

You certainly don’t have to go to my extremes, but the next time you’re alone in a crowd, focus on a nearby conversation, not to eavesdrop, but to pick up on the speakers’ style and cadence. Listen for those breaks, the pauses, the run-on thoughts. Use what you hear in your stories, but don’t pick up those bad habits when you’re presenting yourself, the professional writer.

Words matter.