July 07, 2007

Following too close after truth

Jumpstart for 7/3/2007: Dot tries to teach Joe proper grammar, while Joe teaches Dot about NASCAR:

Though I hate to get between a mother and her son, I have to side with Joe on the grammatical point. The word close is among those English vocables that never quite recovered from a morphologically unfortunate incident a thousand years ago, when Old English mislaid its final short e's, including what was then the adverbial ending. As John Cowan put it, in a comment quoted in an earlier Language Log post ("Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007),

Adverbs in adjective form have been around in English since forever, or at least since the fall of final short e, which was the original adverb ending. In OE, we had a contrast between læt ’slow’ and læte ’slowly’, but later these came to be pronounced identically. Similar stories stand behind go fast and hit hard and many other adverbs, most of them monosyllabic.

Indeed, the ModE adverb ending -ly was -lice in OE, a compound of -lic (same as lic ‘body, corpse’ > lich, lyke ‘corpse’) and this same original -e.

As a result, the OED doesn't even try to distinguish close the adjective from close the adverb, but gives just one entry for both, which includes the relevant examples:

a1400 Morte Arth. 1196 The clubbe..That in couerte the kynge helde closse to hym seluene.
1601 SHAKES. Jul. C. IV. iii. 164 Now sit we close about this Taper heere.
1611 BIBLE Prov. xviii. 24 A friend that sticketh closer then a brother.
—— Jer. xlii. 16 The famine..shall follow close after you.

And as a modern example of the continuing equivocation about close vs. closely, the OED's entry for dog, v. includes the glosses

1. trans. a. To follow like a dog; to follow pertinaciously or closely


2. intr. or absol. To follow close.

Turning to Literature Online, we find that "follow close" has 47 hits in poetry, 38 in drama and 30 in prose, whereas "follow closely" has 6 in poetry, 6 in drama, and 12 in prose.

We can find citations for the "follow close" choice in works by Alexander Pope, John Keats, Mary Shelley, Bret Harte, Walt Whitman, John Wesley, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, among other notables.

But as Charles F. Briggs put in in 1843 (The Haunted Merchant, Chapter 1)

... Sir Walter Raleigh advises the writer of history even, not to follow too close after Truth, lest he should get a kick from her heels.

So perhaps this is enough overinterpretation of the funny papers for today.

[Hat tip: Timm Ferree]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 7, 2007 07:20 AM