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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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