Bad grammar

Conservative newspapers love stories about the poor grammar of modern teenagers. So it’s surprising that the Daily Mail has a great example this week but doesn’t realise it.

The Mail sympathetically tells the tale of Albert Gifford, a 15-year-old from Somerset. After a family visit to the cinema, he wrote to BMW:

I was at the cinema recently, watching Godzilla, when I saw an advert for the new BMW 2 Series Coupé. But the whole advert was ruined by the slogan “it bites as bad as it barks”. This is grammatically incorrect, as ‘bad’ is not an adverb, so cannot be used in this context.

The word “badly” would be acceptable or even more exciting alternatives like ‘fiercely’. It would also be correct to say “its bite is as bad as its bark”. I was distracted with it throughout Godzilla, and didn’t enjoy it fully.

There follows a protracted correspondence between him and a very patient man at BMW. In the course of this fruitless exchange, Albert Gifford adds:

In no well-known saying is ‘bad’ used as an adverb. You can look it up in a dictionary if you like, and it will describe it as an ADJECTIVE (and maybe even a noun), which it is.

But he’s wrong.

His advice to look up “bad” in a dictionary is so good that I did it six times. The OED, Collins, Chambers, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage and all list “bad” as an adverb. Most of them add that it is nonstandard, colloquial or informal, but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect.

“Bad” is a flat adverb – an adverb that takes the same form as the adjective, with no “-ly” added to the end. Many are in standard use: hold me tight, shout it loud, aim high, drive slow, shine bright…

Sometimes flat adverbs have the same meaning as their “-ly” versions; sometimes they’re different.

“I need it bad” and “I need it badly” mean the same thing but differ in register. Likewise “They didn’t do too bad” and “They didn’t do too badly”. But in the case of the BMW ad, “badly” definitely wouldn’t work. “It bites as badly as it barks” would imply that the car is doubly useless. “It bites as bad as it barks” carries the desired sense of power and ferocity.

Some people frown on this usage, though.

Disapproval of adverbial “bad” goes back a long way. The earliest complaint about it that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives is from Robert Baker in 1770:

Some writers employ the word bad as an Adverb, and would not scruple to say That was done very bad: which is not English. The Word ill (it is true) is both an Adjective and an Adverb: but bad is only an Adjective.

The usage itself, as the OED reports, goes back another two centuries:

George Turberville, 1575:
He lures, he leaps, he calles, he cries, he ioyes, he waxeth sad,
And frames his moode, according as his hawke doth well or bad.

Later examples include:

William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848:
I didn’t do my duty with the regiment so bad.

Walt Whitman, 1863:
He has had frozen feet pretty bad.

Muhammad Ali, 1965:
I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.

John Lennon, 1969:
I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad

These are obviously informal and colloquial uses: dialogue, poetry, song. You wouldn’t write “I want this job so bad” in an application letter. But advertising slogans clearly aren’t bound to follow the conventions of formal prose. Advertisers can vary their English as much as lyricists, if they think it’ll work.

The only problem would be if it didn’t work. BMW’s target audience might include a lot of people who react badly to colloquialisms. But Albert Gifford, at least, is too young to drive.

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  • Nick Moon  On June 18, 2014 at 7:09 am

    I was once a 15-year-old from Somerset, and I eventually turned into a proofreader, but I don’t think I would have allowed an adverb/adjective face-off ruin my enjoyment of a film. I hope this doesn’t mean this poor boy is going to turn into a Daily Mail reader.

    • Tom Freeman  On June 18, 2014 at 8:31 am

      I’ve heard that Godzilla isn’t all that engrossing, but to spend the whole film worrying about an ad slogan seems a bit much.

  • walt walker  On June 20, 2014 at 12:13 am

    I was on a bus in Poland once when I heard a Polish student talking to an English speaker about the incorrect grammar of the McDonald’s slogan “I’m Lovin’ It.” He didn’t understand why the slogan was not “I Love It.”

    I could have said that the job of the slogan writer was to engage you and get your attention, and that it had obviously done so.

    Maybe that Polish student should be a slogan writer, because that was ten years ago, and I still remember it.

  • Nick Moon  On June 20, 2014 at 8:14 am

    He’s at it again – in the Guardian, talking about his foray into pedantry…

  • Hobbie DeHoy  On June 24, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Kurt Vonnegut wrote an interesting essay which addresses the topic of colloquial language in advertising. I believe it’s called “New Dictionary” and it’s in the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.

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