Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random thoughts on 'bites as bad as it barks'

BMW are running an ad for their 2 Series Coupé with this slogan:

Bites as bad as it barks

A certain fifteen-year-old, Albert Gifford, who is making something of a name for himself for taking large companies to task for their grammar, wrote a series of emails to BMW, reprinted in The Daily Mail, complaining that bad wasn't an adverb, and 'so cannot be used in this context'. But is he right?

The standard rule

Let's make one thing clear, especially for any foreign learners reading this. In standard English, both formal and spoken, we have two sets of adjective and adverb opposites:
adjectivegood, better, (the) best
Tom's a very good driver
bad, worse, (the) worst
Dick's a really bad driver
adverbbad, worse, worst
Tom drives really well
badly, worse, worst
Dick drives incredibly badly
And of course I'd advise any learners to stick to those forms. But ...

Can bad be an adverb?

In his third email, young Mr Gifford stated:
In no well-known saying is 'bad' used as an adverb. You can look it up in a dictionary if you like, and it will describe it as an ADJECTIVE (and maybe even a noun), which it is.
(Eagle-eyed advanced students will have noticed the nifty bit of negative inversion here.)
It's perhaps a shame he didn't follow his own advice. Of course all dictionaries do list bad as an adjective, but all six British dictionaries I checked also have a listing for bad as an adverb, meaning badly, although they tend to qualify it as North American and informal. Macmillan and Longman warn that some people consider it incorrect and Collins calls it non-standard.
This informal use of bad instead of badly is quite common in popular music, for example:
  • Love you so bad - The Empires 1950s
  • I want you so bad - James Brown 1959
  • (I Love You) So Bad - Paul McCartney 1983
  • How bad do you want it - Tim McGraw 2004
In each of these we could substitute badly for bad without changing the meaning, but look what happens when we do that to the BMW slogan
  • Bites as badly as it barks
As Tom Freeman at The Stroppy Editor blog points out, this would suggest that the Series 2 Coupé neither bites well nor barks well; not quite what BMW had in mind, perhaps.

A play on words

The BMW ad is of course a play on the well-known idiom:

His bark is worse than his bite

When we say this of someone we mean that they look and sound fiercer that they really are, and their actions are not as threatening as their words. But there's a variation, where bite is perhaps closer to the meaning in the BMW slogan.

All bark and no bite

This can have a similar meaning to the first idiom, but it can also mean something like 'all words but no action' - someone speaks tough but does nothing - they don't 'walk the talk'.
In the video, the sound effects make the idiomatic reference perfectly clear. One interpretation could be that bark refers to the throaty roar of the engine, and bite to the car's performance. In other words, it performs as well as it sounds.
But hang on, am I now saying that bad here really means well? Well, yes I am: the ad is really saying that this model bites as well as it barks, which is why badly just wouldn't make any sense here. Perhaps realising this, Gifford suggests using fiercely instead, but that would lose the whole point of the play on words. So can bad indeed mean well (or good)?

Bad, badder, baddest

There's a famous line spoken by American actress Mae West in the 1933 movie I'm No Angel (link to YouTube extract below):
When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.
This is from the Oxford Dictionaries Online entry on bad:
(badder, baddest) informal , chiefly North American
Good; excellent:
  • they want the baddest, best-looking Corvette there is
  • It was the baddest car I'd ever seen and I promised myself right then that one day I'd have one just like it.’
And here's a question at Yahoo Answers:
Whats the sexiest, meanest, baddest looking car around?
Bad means good here, but in a special sense. It could be any of: sexy, raunchy, a bit naughty (in a nice way), cool, having street cred, etc. It seems to be especially used in informal American English to describe cars.
Now in all these cases bad is an adjective, but just as we get the adverb set - badly, worse, worst - from the standard adjective bad, I think perhaps we can get another, albeit informal, adverb set - bad, badder, baddest - from this meaning of bad. And it is this sense that BMW is using - perhaps they could have said that it bites badder (i.e. performs better) than other cars in its class. But that would probably have been going too far.

The problem with this sort of pedantry

Although young Mr Gifford confesses to be a pedant, even seems proud to be one, I won't go that far, but I will call his complaint pedantry. There are a few features people who like to complain about what they perceive as grammar mistakes often have in common:
  • They often have an incomplete knowledge of the relevant grammar - Mr Gifford seems unaware that dictionaries do in fact list bad as an adverb.
  • They rarely make any distinctions of register, recognising only what is acceptable in formal usage as 'correct'
  • They seem unaware of how language is used idiomatically, and especially of nuance - that words can have different meanings to their standard ones.
  • And in this case, apparently, a lack of the sense of how language can be played with to humorous effect.

Advertisers and language

Advertisers have an honourable history of bending the rules and getting away with it. This is because, I would suggest, they tend to have a much better language awareness than the pedants, and are much more in touch with how people actually talk. They can also be, of course, deliberately 'edgy', knowing that the resulting controversy can only increase their publicity. But they have to strike a balance - it can annoy the pedants, but it must also sound acceptable to the rest of us. Here are a few examples:
  • Winston tastes good like a cigarette should - Winston
    The use of like as a conjunction, instead of as, shocked some purists, but it became one of the most successful ads ever. Many of us use like as a conjunction imformally.
  • I'm Lovin it - McDonalds
    The purists maintain that love is a state verb and so cannot be used in the continuous, but when love really means 'enjoy a temporary situation' it's quite often used this way -
    I'm really loving my new job.
  • Think different - Apple
    The purists would prefer think differently, but Jobs apparently wanted something idiomatic like 'think big'
  • Got milk? - California Milk Processing Board
    This is really just an ellipsis of 'Have you got milk?' but it apparently annoyed some people.
  • I wish I was in Egypt - Egypt
    Purists would probably prefer the subjunctive -
    I wish I were in Egypt.
  • Make Summer Funner - Target
    The grammatically correct version would be Make Summer More Fun, but it wouldn't have quite the same ring. I think even purists can accept the joke here.
  • More power. More style. More technology. Less doors. - Mercedes C Class Coupé - fewer doors for the purists

I feel bad - when using bad with verbs is always OK

We use bad after certain linking verbs (or verbs used as linking verbs), where bad refers to the subject, and is in fact an adjective, not an adverb. These verbs are usually related to the senses or to a change in state.
  • I felt really bad about what I said to him.
  • This butter tastes bad.
  • That doesn't sound too bad.
  • The situation is looking pretty bad at the moment.
  • There's something in the fridge smelling really bad.
  • If the weather turns bad, we'll head back to the car.
  • How to tell if meat has gone bad.
There's also the expression, usually used humorously, to have got it bad - to be very much in love, or be in a bad situation.
  • She's really got it bad for Peter.
  • If you think we've got it bad now, just wait till the winter comes.


The young Mr Gifford and the BMW ad.

Definition of bad.


Feeling bad and feeling badly

Advertising slogans at Wikipedia

Advertising and language

Ads etc at You Tube

Flat adverbs


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