Nervous cluelessness and getting there first

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An email correspondent working for someone who is (evidently) a clueless would-be grammar purist appealed to me recently for help:

I am working with a client who insists that it is grammatically incorrect to use Get There First as a tag line. For the life of us, we cannot figure out what is grammatically incorrect about this phrase. Can you shed any light on our mystery?

Of course I can! Here at Language Log we solve half a dozen grammar mysteries of this sort before breakfast. I can not only finger the client's reaction as classic nervous cluelessness; I think I can identify the etiology of the mistake.

My guess would be that the client thinks that because first is an adjective (which it certainly is, hence noun phrases like a first approximation or the first customer), it therefore cannot be used as an adverb. After all (the client might reason), with an adjective like immediate, which certainly occurs as an attributive adjective in a noun phrase like an immediate response, it is not grammatical to use it as an adverb:

*We must go there immediate.
 We must go there immediately.

You have to add -ly to get the related adverb immediately, and use that instead of the adjective.

What the client has not noticed, though, is that there are a number of adjectives in English that have corresponding adverbs that don't take the -ly suffix. There is nothing wrong with words like fast, late, or hard being used either as adjectives or as adverbs, without the -ly:

  fast late hard
adjectival uses:  a fast car a late lunch a hard shell
adverbial uses:  She drove fast. Let's arrive late. They tried hard.

No one (I assume) would think that the adverb uses are ungrammatical in Standard English. And the plain fact is that the ordinal numeral adjectives first, second, third, etc., belong in the same class as fast, late, and hard. In noun phrases like the first person to do it we see them in their adjective guise, and in clauses like I did it first they make fully grammatical appearances as adverbs. Similarly for second, third, and all the others.

One thing that may increase people's anxiety about using unsuffixed adverbs is the fact that informal American English is inclined to use unsuffixed adverbs more freely, and American students may recall getting told off in writing classes for being overly informal. You'll need to get there quick sometimes gets corrected to You'll need to get there quickly, and so on. Moreover, with some words more than just style is at stake: phrases like love me tender and treat me nice (both familiar as Elvis Presley song titles) are not grammatical in Standard English at all, regardless of formality level. So using unsuffixed forms as adverbs certainly can be ungrammatical in some cases.

But the client made the mistake of not considering this question: Which of the following is grammatical?

 I hope we get there first.
*I hope we get there firstly.

It's the asterisked one that is hopelessly ungrammatical, in all dialects and at all formality levels. And the first example is fine.

There is a further point: the adverb first can even occur (with a slightly different meaning) before the verb it modifies:

We first have to get there.

Normally unsuffixed adverbs can't do that: you can say We'll arrive late but not *We'll late arrive. That's one of the small syntactic differences between the two adverbs: late happens not to have developed a pre-head modifier use. The -ly adverbs usually can occur before a verb (as in Elvis immediately left the building, or We quickly grabbed our coats). So first is even more like a typical adverb than late is!

It took only a few seconds on my laptop to determine for sure that a respectably edited source like The Wall Street Journal agreed with me: I searched 44 million words of WSJ articles to see if get there first ever occurred there in the text of an article (rather than in direct quotations from speech), and it did:

With talk of raising federal levies on those items and gasoline, some states that need revenue are moving to get there first.

So to summarize, the client is totally, totally wrong. There is not a whiff of ungrammaticality (or even informality) about the phrase get there first in Standard English.

I hope the client can be convinced. But I wouldn't bet on it: people just dig their heels in on such matters. With their fingers in their ears they just scream that what they think they remember having once been told by an English teacher is right, and all the professional grammarians in the world are wrong and none of the evidence of usage is relevant. Explaining to them that grammatically their head is stuck in a bodily aperture where the sun never shines is even trickier when they are the client and you are working for them and you'd like to keep the contract.

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