or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 02, 2006


I've written briefly before about Alison Bechdel, clearly a terrific human being, who has been invited to join the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, without whose usage guide I would be...well, maybe not bereft, but certainly less well-informed, and so of course I am very jealous.

However, I'm dubious about this sentence from the abovementioned blog posting of hers:

The American Heritage is my absolute favorite dictionary.

Adverbs which modify adjectives are a tricky thing, I know. There are certain instances in which, rather than using an adverb, we seem to use another adjective: "exact", for instance: we'd say "the exact same thing" and never "the exactly same thing", or "most attractive" rather than "mostly attractive" (which doesn't mean the same thing at all, and is in fact a kind of insult). "Absolute favorite" seems to fall into the same category: however, it seemed to me upon reading this that "absolutely favorite" would be at least preferable. But can "absolute favorite", despite its commonness, in fact be correct?

Maybe. I guess.

American Heritage's English Usage wasn't much help to me (you might want to look into that, Ms. Bechdel), but my old standby, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, eventually pointed me in the right direction.

There is a class of adverbs known as flat adverbs, which look exactly like their adjectival counterparts. Many, perhaps most, adjectives simply take "-ly" to convert them into adverbs: quick/quickly, stupid/stupidly, and so on. However, there are some which don't: "fast", for example. "She drove the car fast" is correct, where "fastly" wouldn't be (because it doesn't really exist in English: it used to, but is now dead and gone). Others are "sure", as in "they sure taught me a lesson", and "flat", as in "we got there in seven hours flat".

And I'm guessing, without any clear proof--Googling didn't help--that "absolute" is, if it wasn't always, one of these flat adjectives.

So: I might say "absolute favourite", but I wouldn't write it. (And just to back up that assertion, I checked back through my entire blog, and I never once used "absolute" as an adverb, in case you were wondering.) It strikes me as casual: fit for everyday speech, in which we drop the "-g" from progressive verbs and such, but not so great for writing and formal speech. (And having said that, I'll also concede that most blogs are really the written equivalent of casual speech, though I suppose mine isn't, and so there goes my last remaining objection to "absolute favorite".)


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