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One Writer's Ravings:       A Logophile's Blog for Language Lovers      

Think Global(ly), Act Local(ly)? Some Adverbial Advice

"To you alone can I turn, Mr. Elster," writes Andrew Chaveriat of New York City, adding — as is always prudent when asking for free advice — a bit of welcome flattery: "But first let me thank you for your excellent and matchless Verbal Advantage . . . which I greatly esteem.

"I was wondering if you have a moment to shed some light on the title to a business magazine article published by my bank,” he went on. “The article is about retail banking and is entitled 'Think global, act local.' I informed the editor of our fine magazine that this was nonstandard usage and that the adverbial version of the phrase should have been used: 'Think globally, act locally.'

"He said in reply: 'think global, act local' is a common saying particularly in business English and therefore it is quite right that we used this in our group magazine. I am sure if you were to Google this saying you would get many references to it (I am assuming you've heard of the Internet). Anyway, I am genuinely sorry you were so shocked by this use of modern English.'

"I argue that this use of nonstandard English reflects poorly on our institution. Many nonstandard expressions are widely used, but does that give us the proverbial 'green light' to join the ranks of the unenlightened users of our language? It's bad enough that some editors do not recognize the error in using the above phrase. But it's even worse, in my book, that some editors condone and embrace such usage even when they know it is nonstandard.

"Your reply (as time allows) would be most welcome."

Here was the reply I sent:

Dear Andrew,

Your question is a challenging one because the answer is not clear-cut. Look at the matter in one way and you are right. Look at it in another and the editor is right. And regardless of which side you take, it would be unfair to assert that the other person's preference is flat-out wrong.

Let me try to sort out that equivocal statement for you . . .

We typically think of adverbs as ending in -ly, but in fact adverbs come in many forms. For example, there are adverbs of direction ("go out," "come down"); adverbs of degree, which often precede an adjective ("pretty stupid," "very cute," "extremely good"); relative adverbs ("come when I call," "don't ask why"); adverbs of time ("it arrived Monday"); negative adverbs, which also often precede an adjective ("scarcely noticeable," "not quite able"); adverbs made from nouns ("send it Fedex"); and descriptive adverbs, the ones most of us recognize as adverbs because they qualify an adjective and usually have the suffix -ly ("talk quickly," "eat greedily," "walk awkwardly").

What most of us don't realize, however, is that a fair number of descriptive adverbs have two forms, one with and one without the -ly. That is why you can finely chop your vegetables or chop them fine; you can thinly slice a loaf of bread or slice it thin; you can take something easily or you can simply take it easy.

Many of these adverbs without -ly are used idiomatically. You can drive slowly or drive slow, come quickly or come quick, burn brightly or burn bright. We can reach high for something or think highly of it. And we always eat right, run low, come close, come clean, stand firm, sit tight, and, when instructed to do so by a dentist, open wide.

Everyone knows, as well, that idiom dictates that you are sitting pretty, never prettily; that an amateur athlete aspires to turn pro(fessional), not turn professionally; and that all men are created equal, not equally. In these examples you can see that the adverb denotes a condition governed by the verb, not the manner in which the verb is done. In other words, you don't sit down in a pretty manner; you look good where you're sitting. You don't do a fine job of turning; you turn yourself into a professional. And you are not created in an equal manner, like a widget in an assembly line; you are created as the equal of all others who are created.

To further complicate things, adverbs that follow certain verbs known as copulative or linking verbs ("feel," "seem," "appear," "become," "look," "smell," and "taste" are among them) describe the subject rather than the verb, and so do not end in -ly and instead take what appears to be an adjectival form. For example, we look nice, not nicely; we seem happy, not happily; and we properly feel bad, not badly. Likewise, our food smells and tastes either good or bad, not well or badly.

Are you perhaps beginning to see how, in your case, all this makes a black-and-white ruling difficult? If you can drive slow and look good, perhaps even look amazing, then you need only take but a small linguistic step to arrive at the slogan for a luxury car that I saw on TV the other day: "Drive beautiful." At first glimpse it seems wrong, maybe even a bit ridiculous, doesn't it? Yet it's grammatically unassailable and the meaning is clear. "Drive beautiful" isn't an order to drive in an aesthetically pleasing way; it's a promise that we will be seen as beautiful if we drive a certain luxury car.

"Think big." "Go postal." "Drive beautiful." People in business, and particularly in advertising, love to come up with punchy adverbial phrases like these that slightly bend the rules. Even literary greats do it occasionally, as when the poet Dylan Thomas writes, in his famous villanelle, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

So it's no surprise (to me, at least) that the editor countered you (rather testily) not by arguing that "think global, act local" is grammatically defensible but by claiming that, even if it does bend the rules, it’s a well-known slogan that readers would recognize. And in fact, a quick search of Google News yields persuasive evidence that it is well established, and that (like the slogan "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle") it apparently originated with those businesses, agencies, and individuals involved with the environmental movement.

So I think we must concede that your editor has a point. "Think global, act local" is established to the extent that the correct forms, with -ly, would seem hypercorrect to many people. And if so many words already can have two adverbial forms that function idiomatically, why get upset about adding a couple more to the list? And yet, and yet . . .

One of my favorite commentators on usage, Theodore M. Bernstein, whose work I quote several times in Verbal Advantage, has this to say about choosing whether to use an adverbial form with -ly or without it: "In general, the -ly forms are favored in reputable writing and the shorter forms in casual language, but this guide is by no means invariable and is, moreover, subject to the whims of idiom. . . . Where there is a real choice, however — where idiom does not dictate one form or the other — the reputable writer will prefer the -ly form."

In the case of "think global, act local," we are not dealing with established shorter adverbial forms; we are dealing with two adjectives that have been wrested from their normal position in the language and made to do double duty as adverbs. This is neither idiomatic nor grammatical, and therefore the reputable writer, following Bernstein's advice, should hew to the traditional forms. It is undeniable, however, that the slogan has been embraced widely enough to transcend, for many, any objections on the grounds of idiom or grammar.

So what do we do? For the editor to print "think globally, act locally" would be correct, but it would also be unfamiliar. Which is worse: to be wrong or strange? In this case, which you say involves a title or headline, my editorial instincts tell me that the slogan, despite its liberties, is acceptable, but ONLY when it is obviously used as a slogan. In all other contexts the editor should use the traditional -ly forms.

In other words, I would subtly try to draw a distinction between the rule-bending motto of a movement, familiar to many, and the conventions of standard English. So, for example, if someone quoted in the article said, "Our company is trying to think global and act local," I would let it stand. That's how the person said it, referring unmistakably to the motto. But if the writer's copy read "Ms. X said her company is trying to think global and act local," I would correct it and use the -ly forms.

I hope that my compromise position on this question doesn't frustrate you unduly and brings both you and the editor some measure of satisfaction. And by the way, Andrew, if it's any consolation, there is no way, grammatically or idiomatically, to get away with using the shorter forms after the words "more" or "less." I guarantee that your editor wouldn't be caught dead printing "Ms. X said her company is trying to think more global and act more local." Any editor who lets a gaffe like that get by will soon be looking for a more better job.
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