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A policeman's lot is not a happy one

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  July 17, 2007 04:46 PM

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Language bloggers, not surprisingly, have a couple of nits to pick with "grammar vandal" Kate McCulley, who goes around town adding commas and apostrophes to defective signs like a Reebok ad reading "Run easy Boston." A feature in Sunday's City Weekly explained:

The Reebok sign should have read "run easily," McCulley observed, and it should have had a comma after "easily," before "Boston."
(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.”)

"Run easily, Boston"?

Not so fast, said the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar:

While we appreciate the zeal, easy can be used as an adverb that means "with ease," and has been used this way since 1400. (We checked in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman asks if we think Shakespeare's line should be edited to read "The course of true love never did run smoothly." Anyone who thinks "easy" is only an adjective, he says,

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?"

Mr. Verb was stopped in his metaphorical tracks by something else entirely: McCulley's declaration "Without punctuation, we have nothing."

What's so striking about the use of "without X, we have nothing" is how it's traditionally been used: Check around a little and you get love, hope and dreams filling that X. . . . all matters with some metaphysical heft. I'm fairly sure you have never been so high that punctuation made that list.

Zeno, blogging at Halfway There, says McCulley's comma campaign warms his prescriptivist heart. Still, he agrees that her objection to easy is wrongheaded, and warns (too late?) that the entire grammar-vandal enterprise is hazardous:

No one can safely wave an admonitory finger and hold forth authoritatively on exactly what is right and what is wrong. That is a fool's errand. Anyone who tries too hard to fill the role of grammar police is certain to find him- or herself brought up on false arrest charges.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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