The Grammarphobia Blog

A bona fide boner

Q: Does “bona fide” require a hyphen? In Woe Is I, I read these two phrases: “a bona fide pebble” (on page 160) and “bona-fide adverbs” (on page 221). Is there a difference?

A: You found a style mistake in the new third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book!

The adjectival phrase “bona fide,” according to standard dictionaries, should not have a hyphen.

When Pat gets a chance to do a fourth edition of the book, this error on page 221 will be fixed.

For readers of the blog who don’t have the latest edition of Woe Is I, “bona fide” first shows up in a section about the pronunciation of English words and phrases that come from foreign languages:

“BONA FIDE. This means ‘genuine’ or ‘sincere’ (it’s Latin for ‘good faith’). There are several ways to say it, but the most common is also the most obvious: BONE-uh-fied. Veronica owns a bona fide pebble from Graceland.’ ”

The second appearance is in “The Living Dead,” a chapter about bogus or dead rules. In the interest of laying them to rest, a tombstone is dedicated to each. Here’s the item with the surplus hyphen:

TOMBSTONE: Don’t say ‘Go slow’ instead of ‘Go slowly.

R.I.P. Both slow and slowly are legitimate adverbs. In fact, slow has been a perfectly acceptable adverb since the days of Shakespeare and Milton.

“Adverbs can come with or without ly, and many, like slow and slowly, exist in both forms. Those without the tails are called ‘flat adverbs,’ and we use them all the time in phrases where they follow a verb: ‘sit tight,’ ‘go straight,’ ‘turn right,’ ‘work hard,’ ‘arrive late,’ ‘rest easy,’ ‘aim high,’ ‘play fair,’ ‘come close,’ and ‘think fast.’ Yes, straight, right, hard, and the rest are bona-fide adverbs and have been for many centuries.”

If you’d like to read more about flat adverbs, we had a posting about them on the blog last year.

And in case you’re curious about “bona fide,” it entered English in the 16th century as an adverbial phrase meaning “in good faith, with sincerity; genuinely,” according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, dated 1542-43, is from a parliamentary act during the reign of Henry VIII: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”

The phrase, which comes from the adverbial Latin for “in good faith,” was first used adjectivally in a 1788 essay by John Joseph Powell: “Act not to extend to bona fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”

Thanks for catching that error.

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