Have you ever had to confront a dirty truth about one of your childhood heroes?  I have.  I used to worship Woodrow Wilson.  My elementary and high school history books treated him like a brainiac whose sole problem was his aloofness.  He’d have a great idea, like the League of Nations, or the Fourteen Points, or a less-punitive Treaty of Versailles, but then the lunkheads in Congress — I’m looking at you, Henry Cabot Lodge — would vote him down, seemingly because they were jealous of how smart and great he was.

I graduated from high school and went on to college at Wilson’s alma mater, excited about all the stuff on campus named for him or otherwise honoring him.  And then, during my junior year, I started reading about how Wilson was actually a pretty heavy-duty racist, even for his time. (This came from reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, one of the inspirations for this blog.)  It was a crushing blow, and revealed to me that, even though I thought I had matured beyond hero worship, hero worship isn’t something you ever really outgrow.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is another of my boyhood heroes.  My best friend in elementary school and I listened to Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day album incessantly throughout much of 1996 and 1997. I still get the song “Mr. Popeil” stuck in my head from time to time, and the lyrics to “Amish Paradise” are etched into my brain.   Thus it is with a profound sense of sadness and tarnished dreams that I inform you that even Weird Al can be wrong — though not nearly so badly so as Wilson.  Weird Al posted a video on Twitter in which he stops a car because he sees a road sign reading
CAUTION DRIVE SLOW

You might be able to predict what happens next: Weird Al gets out of the car, walks over to the sign, and attaches a Post-It with “LY” written on it.  Turning to the camera, he says “Grammar, people! C’mon!”

This may have contributed to the appearance of “g-r-a-m-m-a-r” as one of the top trending topics on Twitter. (It appeared with the dashes between the letters on Twitter; I’m not spelling it out or anything.)  Twitter discussions of grammar, with or without dashes, are probably something best avoided, so I’m a little dismayed at what Weird Al has wrought.  But more than anything else, I am sorry to say that Weird Al is incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with the phrase drive slow.

Whoa, there!  Perhaps you’re wondering if I’ve gone round the bend.  There’s nothing wrong with drive slow?  Yes, you read that right.  Slow is what’s known as a flat adverb, one that lacks an -ly suffix and therefore looks the same as an adjective.  Another flat adverb is right, which I used in the phrase read that right a few sentences ago.  But I think my favorite example of a flat adverb is fast, because it’s uncontroversially an adverb, and it has no -ly version:

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! poster
(1a) Varla insists on driving fast.
(1b) *Varla insists on driving fastly.

(2a) Linda prefers to drive slow.
(2b) Linda prefers to drive slowly.

(The * means the sentence is ungrammatical.) According to the Oxford English Dictionary, adverbial slow appeared around 1500 and has stuck around the language ever since. Adverbial fast and right are even older, dating back to 1205 and 950 respectively, so it’s clear that flat adverbs like slow have a long pedigree.

Not only that, but the pedigree is distinguished as well. Thackeray includes the line “[…] we drove very slow for the last two stages on the road […]” in his 1848 classic Vanity Fair. Even Shakespeare himself would smile upon the road sign; he used adverbial slow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “[…] but O, methinks, how slow / This old moon wanes!”

And, if you’re the sort who only accepts grammar if some authority tells you it’s the case, you’ll be interested to hear that The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Usage and Abusage, and The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style all accept adverbial slow in the context of a road sign. (Fowler’s does so begrudgingly, the others openly.)

So, no, idol-of-my-youth and all your re-tweeters, the sign didn’t need corrected. Your ire is misplaced. The same is true for Dr. Pepper’s slogan “drink it slow”. (It is worth noting, though, that adverbial slow can only follow the verb; it usually can’t be an adverb if it precedes the verb. I slow drove down the street, for instance, is wrong.)

Summary: It’s fine to use slow as an adverb; it is part of a class of words that can be either adjectives or adverbs, and has been for 500 years. Shakespeare, Milton, and Thackeray all used adverbial slow, so it’s even fine with the literary set and style manuals

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