How did you compose the sentence, "But I learned wrong."
That is the full text of an email I received recently. It contained no greeting, no introduction. It was unsigned. The one-word subject line, "Decimate," was my only clue that it was a reference to this column and not to my blog or podcasts or books.
I had, in fact, discussed the word "decimate" in the fourth paragraph of a recent column. But when I checked, the sentence wasn't there. Only later in that column, in a paragraph dedicated to the word "gender," did I finally find the sentence in question.
With that mystery solved, I could move on to the next: What, exactly, was the correspondent asking? I had a clue. The email was reminiscent of a much clearer one I received about eight years ago.
Back then, a letter writer who identified himself as Mario pointed out my use of the phrase "if you use it wrong." He didn't like it one bit.
"It seems you do not agree that only adverbs can modify verbs," Mario wrote. "One cannot use anything 'wrong,' only 'wrongly.' In your incorrect use of 'wrong,' there is no doubt that you are wrong. I therefor [sic] challenge you to admit your mistake in a follow-up article for all to read. I am not holding my breath."
Then, about a day later, I got another email from a different reader about the very same matter. "Wrong can be used as a noun or adjective, but never an adverb," this reader explained to me. "June used the word wrongly. 'Wrongly' is an adverb modifying the verb 'used.' I look forward to reading your 'mea culpa' in your next article.
Well, it came up in an article, all right. The emails even figured prominently into my first book after these two inspired the observation that "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies," in which I addressed both correspondents at once.
"Please open your dictionaries to the word 'wrong,' " I wrote. "Please see that, following the first cluster of definitions under 'adj.,' adjective, comes the abbreviation 'adv.,' adverb. 'Wrong' is an adverb. And you are both wrong."
The fascinating thing about all this, aside from the letter writers' eagerness to point fingers, is that it didn't cross their minds to check their facts first. You would think that most people would suspect that a sentence as unnatural sounding as "Don't use it wrongly" may not be the only correct choice. Or did these two not know that they had the answer at their fingertips, as close as the nearest dictionary?
Manner adverbs don't follow a precise formula. Yes, sometimes they're formed by adding "ly" to an adjective, as in "beautiful" and "beautifully," but it's not always that simple. If it were, we would be forced to say "I'm doing goodly" every time someone inquired about our health or well-being. Luckily, we don't need a formula because the answers are always in the dictionary.
It's possible, though, that the more recent letter writer took issue not with "wrong" but with the first word of my sentence, "but." A common misperception holds that it's wrong to start a sentence with conjunctions like "but," "and" and "so." But again, this natural-sounding usage is natural-sounding for a reason: It's perfectly fine. Garner's Modern American Usage labels this idea about conjunctions as "superstition." Every other noted language authority under the sun agrees.
So how did these three readers react when I wrote to tell them that "wrong" is a full-fledged adverb in good standing, interchangeable with "wrongly" anytime it sounds natural? I'll never know. None of them wrote me back.
June Casagrande is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.