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October 6th, 2004

Formally vs. formerly / not a vs. no / more quickly vs. quicker

by Barbara Wallraff

Lucille L. Soper, of Orland, Maine, writes: “My pet peeve is getting to be the use of ‘formally’ when ‘formerly’ is meant.”

Dear Lucille: This is such a foolish mistake that I can scarcely believe it turns up in print. But it does. Within the past month various newspapers have reported that Time Warner was “formally known as America Online”; that a high-school soccer player broke his school’s career record for points, which had been “formally held” by someone else; that the Bob Hope Theatre, of Stockton, Calif., was “formally known as the California Fox”; and that peace activist Yusuf Islam was “formally known as pop singer Cat Stevens.”

All the same, I just have to assume that no one reading this needs to have the difference between “formal” and “former” explained. Anyone who does, please -- please! -- write me. Nobody but the bleary-eyed or the hopelessly harried should ever make this mistake.

Arash Assadi, of San Jose, Calif., writes: “Is there is a difference between ‘He is not an English teacher’ and ‘He is no English teacher’? A colleague of mine believes that the latter is wrong and the only possible form is ‘He is not an English teacher.’”

Dear Arash: This calls to mind a memorable moment in vice-presidential debate history. In 1988, Democrat Lloyd Bentsen told his Republican opponent Dan Quayle: “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The line has been endlessly repeated and referred to and commented upon, but to my knowledge no one has ever criticized its grammar. The grammar is fine, and so is the grammar of “He is no English teacher.”

In fact, “He is not a ...” and “He is no ...” have different meanings. “He is not an English teacher,” unless it’s said in a very sarcastic tone, means just what it says: The man is something other than an English teacher. But “He is no English teacher” means the man seems to think he is, and the speaker or writer doesn’t believe he’s worthy of the description.

Matt Harper, of Pinckney, Mich., writes: “I often hear radio and TV news people say ‘more quickly.’ It sounds goofy! What ever happened to the word ‘quicker’?”

Dear Matt: Not many reference books will tell you this, but you can see it in databases of English in use: “Quicker” preferably modifies nouns, and “more quickly” modifies verbs. Consider “My favorite newspeople have quicker minds than some others I might name.” Here “quicker” modifies the noun “minds,” and “more quick” would sound goofy. But “Some newspeople talk more quickly than others.” Here “more quickly” is modifying the verb “talk” -- and this time, wouldn’t “quicker” sound goofy?

What this means grammatically is that it’s fine to “inflect” the adjective “quick”: “quick,” “quicker,” “quickest.” But it’s usually best to use “more” and “most” to create the comparative forms of the adverb. “Quick” can be an adverb (as in “Tell me quick!”), but the more usual form is “quickly”: “quickly,” “more quickly,” “most quickly.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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