Precious few signs of laziness or ignorance

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Expressions like !real comfortable, with a modifier of adjective form preceding the head of an adjective phrase, adverb phrase, or determinative phrase, are characteristic of non-standard dialects. I take that to be simply a factual claim, not a value judgment. In written Standard English prose on serious subjects, outside of dialog, you do not find !real comfortable, !real friendly, etc. (the exclamation mark prefix is the notational device used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language to mark cited examples that are grammatical in some non-standard dialects but not grammatical in any variety of the Standard English dialect).

Some writers of a prescriptivist bent tend to suggest that the speakers who use such phrases are simply too lazy and ignorant to distinguish an adjective from an adverb: !real comfortable is wrong, they say, because adjectives like real do not modify adjectives, so the phrase should be corrected to really comfortable. It's simply a matter of slovenliness and inattention. These people should shape up, and learn the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

However, the other day, I heard someone on BBC Radio 4 say There are precious few, and I realized that it thoroughly undercuts the laziness-and-ignorance diagnosis. Precious few is clearly and definitely grammatical in Standard English. And crucially, preciously few is not.

Now, don't make a feverish grab for the mouse and start writing a screed to tell me that someone is wrong on the Internet. I am perfectly well aware that there are people who seem to think it is grammatical: preciously few does get about 2,790 Google hits. But that is chickenfeed; it's noise level. Precious few (though not all that common) gets 560,000 hits, some 200 times as many. Scanning a few of the occurrences of *preciously few, I get a sense of inexpert writers hypercorrecting. (Hypercorrection is making a change from something that is grammatical to something that is not because of an over-anxious attempt to apply a rule without fully understanding how it works.) I'm saying they are simply wrong about the dialect they are attempting to write: they think that because !real comfortable is an error for really comfortable, therefore precious few is an error for *preciously few. They're just wrong. (Do you want standards or not? People sometimes whine about linguists being in favor of relaxing standards by allowing that ungrammatical forms of words are OK. I'm neither saying it's OK to speak a non-standard dialect nor that it's not. It's up to you. You're fine as you are. I'm just saying *preciously few is not grammatical in the dialect to which Rodney Huddleston and I devoted an 1860-page grammar.)

The issue at hand is about which kinds of constituent appear as pre-head modifiers in non-noun-phrase constituents, i.e., in adjective phrases (AdjP), adverb phrases (AdvP), and determinative phrases (DtvP). For the most part, the answer is that such modifiers are AdvP:

Adv + Adj Adv + Adv Adv + Dtv
absolutely unacceptable    clearly expertly almost all
certainly suitable quite absurdly essentially every
completely ridiculous really obviously hardly any
quietly confident surprisingly closely     rather less
similarly competent too obviously too much
soon irrelevant very profoundly very few

But there are a few cases in which we find these modifier functions adopted either by adjectives, or by adverbs zero-derived from adjectives in the sense that they have no -ly suffix but they are adverbs nonetheless (it is hard to tell; one careful study by Arnold Zwicky favored the latter view). Pretty is one of these: we find pretty much obsolete, pretty awful, where it modifies an adjective (and notice, *prettily awful is not grammatical); pretty clearly, where it modifies an adverb (and notice, *prettily clearly is not grammatical). It does not commonly appear modifying determinatives as far as I can see; occasionally pretty few will be found, but I'm not sure it should count as standard English (I'm seeing it attested in places like young people's blogs).

There are a few others, somewhat sporadically. Dead occurs as a modifier in such AdjPs as dead last and dead wrong (dead does not have a related adverb at all). Stark occurs as a modifier in stark naked (starkly naked does occur, but generally with a different meaning, as in "the word loneliness is sung
in a starkly naked descending melodic line").

It seems that precious is another adjective that has taken up this kind of rather limited service as an adverb or adverb-like modifier, in Standard English.

So whatever the history is of non-standard phrases like !real comfortable, !mighty fine, !solid gone, !wicked cool, and so on, it is not sensible to view it as just careless omission of the adverb-forming -ly suffix). The situation is much more complicated. What appears to have been happening is that Standard English has been constricting somewhat a pattern that was long present in non-standard dialects.

I do not have a full understanding of the situation; but I do have strong grounds for thinking that the laziness-and-ignorance hypothesis is flatly wrong (or flat wrong, if you will permit what I think is probably a non-standard idiom). The notion that !real comfortable can be explained as a consequence of ignorant people failing to distinguish adjectives from adverbs is more than absurdly simplistic; it comes nowhere near representing the facts correctly for either Standard English or the non-standard dialects. It would predict complete random vacillation between adjectives and adverbs in all contexts, and we never find that in any dialect.

Let me just add a point about the early history of prescriptive grammar that I found rather interesting when I happened upon it yesterday. The prescriptive disapproval of adjective bases turning up in adverbial roles is some 250 years old. Robert Lowth, in his celebrated 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar, which really introduced personal-judgment prescriptivism into the English grammatical literature (which goes back nearly 200 years before that) says:

Adjectives are sometimes employed as Adverbs; improperly, and not agreeably to the Genius of the English Language. As, "indifferent honest, excellent well:" Shakspeare, Hamlet. "extreme elaborate:" Dryden, Essay on Dram. Poet. "marvellous graceful:" "[sic] Clarendon, Life, p. 18. "marvellous worthy to be praised:" Psal. cxliv. 3. for so the Translators gave it. "extreme unwilling;" "extreme subject:" Swift, Tale of a Tub, 2nd Battle of Books. "extraordinary rare:" Addison, on Medals. "He behaved himself conformable to that blessed example." Sprat's Sermons, p. 80. "I shall endeavour to live hereafter suitable to a man in my station." Addison, Spect. No 530.

Lowth admits that "exceeding, for exceedingly, however improper, occurs frequently in the Vulgar Translation of the Bible, and has obtained in common discourse", and he cites Many men reason exceeding clear and rightly, who know not how to make a syllogism from the work of John Locke (to the very learned Dr Lowth, Locke's dense philosophical work was "common discourse").

What was going on here? Lowth was a brilliant man: a professor of poetry at Oxford, a Doctor of Divinity, an ordained minister, a translator of Hebrew poetry, and ultimately Bishop of London. He was looking at clear evidence from published writing by the finest writers in the English language — William Shakespeare the Bard of Avon; the great essayist and critic John Dryden (who invented the prescriptive disapproval of stranded prepositions); the satirist and novelist Jonathan Swift; Joseph Addison, co-founder of The Spectator; and the translators of the King James authorized version of the Bible. The evidence was that adjectives sometimes had adverb uses (or had zero-derived adverb alternants). Why was this "improper"? If we knew exactly why Lowth thought there was impropriety here, we would know a lot more about the origins of prescriptive impulse that beats in so many English hearts.

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