July 16, 2007

The Grammar Vandal strikes in Boston

According to Danielle Dreilinger, "Self-proclaimed 'grammar vandal' goes after public mistakes that grate", Boston Globe, 7/15/2007:

The ads said "run easy," but they made Kate McCulley's teeth clench.

The 22-year-old grammarian stared at Reebok's Marathon-themed posters on her commute from Somerville to Fort Point this spring, on her way to her job as a research assistant at a concierge services company. "RUN EASY BOSTON," the ads announced, inviting locals to . . . do what?

The question began to haunt her.

"Should I run an easy Boston? Should I run, and is Boston a promiscuous city?" she riffed on her travel blog, katesadventures.com. Her conclusion: "Without punctuation, we have nothing." [...]

On May 29, a memorable date for its linguistic personal import, McCulley cracked. The mild-mannered blogger ducked inside (well, next to) a bus shelter on Summer Street by South Station, pulled out her handy sheet of comma stickers, and made one small correction:


She had become the Grammar Vandal.

Bostonians should be grateful, I guess, that no one has been hacked into pieces and that no windows have been broken.

Meanwhile, the Globe's editorial staff apparently could use a grammatical refresher course (by which, of course, I mean to criticize my profession for failing in its educational mission, not the Globe for failing to find a way to recover from our dereliction). The ellipsis in the quote above includes this editorial admonition:

(Grammar note: "Easy" is an adjective, which must never be used to describe a verb, such as "run"; that task calls for the adverb "easily." A sentence addressing someone directly, such as "Run easily," must separate that address from the party being addressed -- in this case, Boston -- with a comma.)

Whoever wrote this -- it's not clear if it was Ms. Dreilinger or one of her editors -- needs to take the general grammatical point up with William Shakespeare, Jack London, Francis Beaumont, Wilfred Owen, and many other worthies, as discussed in an earlier Language Log post: "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007.

For example, Shakespeare had Lysander say:

For ought that ever I could reade,
Could ever heare by tale or historie,
The course of true love never did run smooth
But either it was different in blood.

But according to the Globe's prescription, the course of true love never did run smoothly.

And this is not just some antique Elizabethan quirk. From C. Day Lewis, The Magnetic Mountain:

5 You were my world my breath my seasons
6 Where blood ran easy and springs failed not,
7 Kind was clover to feet exploring
8 A broad earth and all to discover.

[Update -- an anonymous reader writes:

It seems to me that "run easy" and "run easily" aren't interchangeable. "Run easy" is like "Take it easy;" "easy" here seems to mean something like "laid-back." "Run easily" makes me think of someone who is a naturally gifted runner and can run without having to do a lot of training.

True. In cases like "walk safe" or "go free" or "run easy", the second word is a genuine adjective, used appropriately, not a non-standard adverb form, like real in "real nice". You can see an elaborate example of predicative adjectives with run in this quotation from Alexander Pope (from a letter to Walsh dated Oct. 22, 1706):

It is not enough that nothing offends the ear, but a good poet will adapt the very sounds, as well as words, to the things he treats of. So that there is, if one may express it so, a style of sound -- as in describing a gliding stream, the numbers should run easy and flowing; in describing a rough torrent or deluge, sonorous and swelling, and so of the rest.

Note that that there are also some adjectives that can double as adverbs even in formal style, as discussed here.]

[Update #2 -- several readers have written to point out that this echoes the organization invented by David Foster Wallace, a self-described snoot, in his novel Infinite Jest: The Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts. Thus on page 987:


[Update #3 -- Jonathan Weinberg writes to remind us of the saying "still waters run deep" (not "deeply"), and the Edward Beach novel and Clark Gable movie "Run Silent, Run Deep" (not "Run Silently, Run Deeply").]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 16, 2007 11:05 AM