The Negative Canon: ‘Adjectives Can’t Be Adverbs’

I’m posting this in my Negative Canon series, because it’s based on a fairly frequent objection to the apparent use of adjectives as adverbs. My discussion of it, however, is speculative, and my conclusion tentative.

An adjective modifies a noun. It can be attributive, as in ‘green grass’, or predicative, as in ‘the grass is green’. An adverb can modify a verb (‘I’ll see you soon’), an adjective (‘It’s very late’), another adverb (‘really quickly’) or it can introduce a whole sentence (‘Thankfully, it’s stopped raining’). So far, so good, but the line between adjectives and adverbs is not as clear as some might like. There are some words that are thought of only as adjectives which have in fact long been adverbs as well, and long is one of them. Others include slow, plain, quick, good, long, tight, different and soft. In his poem ‘Memorabilia’, Browning wrote ‘I saw Shelley plain’, and in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, Yeats wrote ‘Peace comes dropping slow.’ That is one answer to those who would tell us that You can hear it plain and Go slow should be You can hear it plainly and Go slowly.

One answer, but is it the whole answer? One of Apple’s slogans was Think different. The OED shows that different was used as an adverb by Sarah Fielding, Fanny Burney and Charles Kingsley, but comments that it is ‘Now only in uneducated use.’ Drawing a veil over that patronising comment, there’s no doubt that the citation from Fanny Burney, ‘He pronounces English . . . quite different from other foreigners’, would be considered nonstandard today. So what’s going on with Think different? It wouldn’t have been much of a slogan if it had been Think differently, and the reason seems to be not simply that Apple wished to be demotic (although that might have been their wish). Think differently would mean that we should use some new kind of cognitive process, which is hardly possible given the current state of neurological research. That doesn’t seem to be what Apple intended.

No, what I think is happening is that think is being used here as a copular verb. ‘A property of copular verbs,’ according to the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’, is that they can be complemented by an adjective’. Be is the most common copular verb, but there are others. They include seem, remain, keep, stay, become, get, go, come, grow, prove, turn, turn out, end up and wind up. They also include the sensory verbs look, feel, sound, smelI and taste. But we might reverse the Longman statement and say that a verb complemented by an adjective is a copular verb. There is no reason why English should not expand the list of copular verbs to meet changing needs. I have, to take another example, seen a cookery book entitled ‘Cook Healthy’, which I take to mean ‘cook in a way that promotes health’ rather than ‘cook in a way that promotes your own health while you’re doing it’.

Similarly, the writer of the Apple slogan has concentrated language in a way that both attracts our attention and suggests that by buying Apple products we show originality of thought. Rather than telling us to think differently, the slogan tells us to be different as a result of our thinking. It’s the kind of language play that recent research has shown pervades all discourse. It provides strong evidence that English, far from being in decline as some would have us believe, is a thriving, inventive and productive language. That is a cause for celebration, not whingeing.


Filed under The Negative Canon

6 responses to “The Negative Canon: ‘Adjectives Can’t Be Adverbs’

  1. Historically, the monosyllabic “flat adverbs” were distinguished from their adjective counterparts by the ending “-e”: Old English læt ‘slow’ became læte ‘slowly’. With the general fall of “-e” in late Middle English, the distinction was lost.


    • Yes, I saw your comment from Language Log repeated by Johnson in 2010. In some instances, the ‘-e’ form itself seems to have been the dative of the corresponding noun. In ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, Bruce Mitchell gives the example ‘yfle’ (with evil, evilly) from ‘yfel’.


  2. markonsea

    I beg to differ with our esteemed blogger. I think Apple are using a nouned adjective, in a similar way to the trendy “I don’t do casual”. So it amounts (as I read it) to “Think ‘different’.” That is, in the same way as someone searching for an answer to a riddle might be told, “Think ‘Africa’.”

    Mind you, that’s the way I read it. I may be alone in this …


  3. Pingback: August on the web | Part-time PhD

  4. Pingback: Adjectives | Kelts School

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