Monday, 13 November 2017


There was an interesting article in the UK's Daily Telegraph recently about how we are losing the ability to add nuance to our use of English. You can read about it here. The research has now been written up as a book:  American and British English: Divided by A Common Language, published by Cambridge University Press.

So what are gradable adverbs? They are qualifying words we use in order to lessen the impact of something. We might say something is "fairly" important, so as to minimise any sense of panic. We could say we "quite" like something, when in fact, we probably don't. I sometimes suggest to colleagues when they don't want to leave my office that I am "rather" busy (meaning, I wish they would depart so that can get on with my work!).

According to the research, this is a very British use of the English language, and because of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the American version worldwide, it is in steep decline everywhere. This includes the UK, where the invasion of US English proceeds apace. Americans, it seems, are more direct in their communication and have little time for subtlety or evasion. In the modern, busy world, this is seen as positive and should be encouraged. Or should it? I have never been much of a believer in black and white solutions for anything. If gradable adverbs are part of what delay us making up our minds, their absence would have forced Hamlet to kill Claudius within a few minutes of the play beginning. Instead, we get several glorious hours of indecision, vacillation and an unwillingness to act.

The other rather worrying assumption that the book makes is that using qualifying adverbs in this way is seen as being pompous and effete. One of the glories of the English language, or so it has always seemed to me, is that it allows an almost infinite variety of expression. Reducing the use of helpful structures such as gradable adverbs, in a minor way, impoverishes the language. I could also wave my UK flag for a moment and say that whenever I have visited the US, I am struck by how many people refuse to use adverbs at all. I have lost count of the times I have heard expressions such as "I done good," or "She sings beautiful." Maybe killing off the poor old gradable version is just another step along the road to adverb extinction.

In this college, I am PRETTY sure that we are RATHER good at presenting new ideas and structures FAIRLY well to our students. I also hope they leave us with QUITE a good command of both written and spoken English. Perhaps I had better leave it there!

This is likely to be my last blog post of 2017. The final two weeks of the semester are very heavy in terms of time and commitments. Let me take this opportunity, therefore, to wish you all a pleasant time with your sons and daughters over the holiday period, and to hope 2018 brings everything you wish for.

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