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A Word, Please: An explanation for a real real problem

January 30, 2011

I teach an online copy-editing course and every term I do something kind of cruel to my students. I ask them to share some of their grammar peeves in the class's online message board.

It's cruel because I know what's coming. Someone is going to rant about some common error that really gets under her skin, not realizing that the supposedly egregious error isn't really an error at all.

Then I'm going to tell her so.

It's a trap, I know. But it packs a valuable lesson for aspiring copy editors: We have to check our facts — even facts we were sure we had down pat.

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Take, for example, one student's recent lament that people shouldn't use "real" in place of "really" in a sentence like "Pete works real hard."

On the surface, her complaint makes sense: Adverbs like "really" modify adjectives like "hard." There's no doubt that "Pete works really hard" is correct. And it sounds nice and proper, too.

You could say that the "real" in "Pete works real hard" is substandard. You could say it's improper. You could say it's dialectical, low rent, nonstandard or even icky. But you can't say it's wrong.

A simple check of the dictionary proves this: "Webster's New World College Dictionary" and "Merriam-Webster's" online dictionary both list "real" as an adverb meaning "very." So "Pete works real hard" is grammatical, according to these dictionaries.

Though "real" can pinch hit for "very," it's not as versatile as "really." Sure, "real," like "very," can modify adjectives, as in "She's real smart." But "real" can't modify verbs, as in "She real is suffering." For that, only "really" will do: "She really is suffering."

That's what I told my students. But then, in one of those moments of cosmic justice, a student put me on the spot: Why, she asked, if "real" is acceptable as an adverb, is it so widely considered improper?

"Whys" aren't really my strong suit. I'm more a "whether" person, focusing on whether you can use certain words certain ways. So to answer her question, I had to dig a little deeper.

I started with "Fowler's Modern English Usage," which taught me that using "real" to mean "very" is mainly an American and Scottish thing. Brits aren't as prone to this "informal" usage.

"Garner's Modern American Usage" notes that "real" can function as an adverb but calls it "dialectical."

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