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TWTS: Testing "positive" vs. testing "positively"

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a lot of questions about testing for the novel coronavirus – including some that are grammar-related.

A listener named Alan Ardanowski asked: "If someone gets a positive test result for COVID-19, do they test 'positive' or test 'positively?'"

Doctors will tell you that someone tests either “positive” or “negative." If you look to the media, you'll generally find the same answer – “test positive” far outweighs “test positively” in coverage both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What we really have here is a question of how the verb “test” is functioning. If “test” has an object, use the adverb. For example, "We can't test people reliably."

If you're talking about what kind of results people are getting, "test" functions as a linking verb. In other words, it links the subject to information that follows the verb. For example, "I tested positive for COVID-19," or, similarly, "I am positive for COVID-19."

In other pandemic-related questions, a listener named Kevin English wanted know which is correct, "uncharted" or "unchartered." To hear the answer, listen to the audio above, and keep your questions coming!

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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