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Sit tight, drive safe, and watch for flat adverbs

An article on women in the CIA offers, in passing, a grammar lesson.

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One of the first experts in the US intelligence community to warn against Al Qaeda, back in 1993, was a senior Central Intelligence Agency analyst named Gina M. Bennett – who has five children. She later wrote a book titled "National Security Mom: Why 'Going Soft' Will Make America Strong." She's quoted as saying, "I was struck by the idea that what I do at home and what I do at work are very similar.... I felt that all I needed to know about national security I learned from my kids."

It puts a new spin on the concept of a "mommy track," doesn't it?

She was mentioned in Eli Lake's recent Newsweek/Daily Beast piece, "The CIA's Se­cret Weapons," about the bright, dedicated women who serve as CIA "targeters," including "Jen," who tracked Osama bin Laden.

Here's Mr. Lake: "Before the raid, [Jen] briefed the SEALs on what they should expect to encounter in Abbottabad – down to details like whether a door inside the compound would open inwardly or outwardly. (She got it right.)"

But, speaking of details, something in that paragraph is not right: the two adverbs. "Inward" and "outward" would have sufficed.

Welcome to the world of flat adverbs. Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, explains them in a video at Merriam-Webster.com. (This is the kind of thing we words nerds watch instead of cat videos.) Adverbs modify, or describe, verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They are often, but not always, formed by adding "ly" to the ending of an adjective. Flat adverbs, on the other hand, lack an "ly" and are identical with their adjectival twins. A swift runner runs swiftly, but a fast runner runs fast.

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