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The decline of degree adverbs

The degree adverb is a powerful grammatical element, adding emphasis to some phrases and lessening the impact of others. It helps us communicate our thoughts more fully, hammering home our intentions, thoughts and feelings. So why is it falling out of favour? Comma Chameleon laments the decline of a linguistic frill, and delves into the mechanics of the grading adverb…

Old-fashioned couple talking about modern language

Degrees of separation anxiety

What’s happened to the degree adverb? You know, those words like ‘fairly’ or ‘unusually’ that give a description more weight, more substance, more oompf.

Is it in terminal decline? Are we Brits falling out of love with the degree adverb in our race to get to the point? It certainly feels like it.

And for us at Comma Chameleon, that’s a real blow.

Perhaps that’s because we spent our formative years frolicking among the pages of the classics of English literature, devouring the frilliness of the language and letting degree adverbs seep into our very souls. Perhaps it’s because we spent many a rainy Sunday afternoon watching the classic black-and-white movies of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, which were filled to the brim with frightfullys and awfullys.

Whatever it was that did it, we’ve actually always been rather partial to a degree adverb.

So it hit us like a ton of bricks the other day: the realisation that you simply don’t get those flouncy flourishes of language any more. We were sat there, indulging in some lockdown binge-watching courtesy of Netflix, when BOOM! There it was. Like a freight train from out of nowhere. The degree adverb is on its way out.

We British are quintessentially opposed to conflict. We don’t like an argument. We don’t like to offend people… [Consequently,] our language has traditionally been peppered with degree adverbs designed to soften the blow of our utterances, to temper our judgements and criticisms, or to increase the force of a phrase

Can it be true?

With that realisation, we did what any other right-thinking person does these days when faced with a conundrum that requires support, an answer, or some advice: we Googled it.

We booted up the old browser, and posited a question. ‘Dear Google, is the degree adverb in decline?’

The answer, rather sadly, was yes.

Our sorrowful search through the search results led us to a rather interesting bit of research by Professor Paul Baker, an academic in linguistics at Lancaster University. In his research study, American and British English: Divided by a Common Language, Prof. Baker looks at the decline of the degree adverb among speakers and writers of British English – and suggests it has fallen out of favour to such a degree that our language is now on a par with that of the no-nonsense Americans.

Oh! The unutterable horror of it!

(lolz, obvs.)

Why the degree adverb matters

We British are quintessentially opposed to conflict. We don’t like an argument. We don’t like to offend people, and we find short replies rather rude. (Generally speaking, of course.) Our language has traditionally been peppered with degree adverbs designed to soften the blow of our utterances, to temper our judgements and criticisms, or to increase the force of a phrase. But those words like ‘fairly’, ‘quite’ and ‘rather’, or ‘frightfully’, ‘awfully’ and terribly’, not only add emphasis to phrases, they can also serve to make language more playful, allowing for more personal connections. And what is language if not a way of connecting with people?

So it saddens us that they are in decline.

Quite

We’re not quite the language purists you might now be imagining us to be. We know that language is an ever-evolving beast. New words enter the popular lexicon every day – new utterances and phrases that capture perfectly the moment in time. (Who’d have thought this time last year that ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ would be in the common vernacular? Not us, that’s for sure.)

We don’t even have a problem with so-called internet speak, with all its lolzcats and c u l8rs. We’ve been known to use it, from time to time, as it happens. We’re not dinosaurs. We’re not even 40 yet.

But yet… but yet…

We’re sad about the decline of the degree adverb.

Why are we so intent on getting directly to the point, with nary a flight of fancy nor a flourish? When did this decline happen?

Sigh of the times

In his research, Professor Baker identified a significant decline in the use of degree adverbs at various times over the past 100 years. Looking at language use across newspapers, books and films, he noticed the first pronounced decline between the early 1930s and the 1960s. After that point, it levelled off slightly, before entering a further period of steep decline in the 1990s. That period of decline is still underway.

 

Looking at the popular culture from those periods is one way to see the trend in action. Classic films like Brief Encounter (released part-way through the first decline, in 1945) are absolutely packed with degree adverbs.

 

Looking at the popular culture from those periods is one way to see the trend in action. Classic films like Brief Encounter (released part-way through the first decline, in 1945) are absolutely packed with degree adverbs.

Just think of that line from Laura: ‘It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.’

Two sentences, three showings for the degree adverb.

Can you imagine such a beautifully wrought sentence coming out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or even a comparable contemporary romantic drama? No, us neither.

So why has this decline happened?

Nobody wants to sound posh

One theory for this decline is that the degree adverb makes language sound more snooty. More hoity-toity. They are seen as identifiers of the middle and upper classes, and with those being pilloried in the press as a result of injustices suffered amid a global financial crash, that’s not a good thing. These days, not even posh people want to be seen as posh.

 

One theory for this decline is that the degree adverb makes language sound more snooty. More hoity-toity. They are seen as identifiers of the middle and upper classes, and… These days, not even posh people want to be seen as posh.

 

As Baker writes, it ‘could perhaps be hypothesised as an indirect form of democratisation, with people wishing to avoid sounding insufferably upper-class.’ True dat.

But can that really be true? Is it all to do with class bias?

Perhaps it’s got more to do with the fact that we have less time to read or write with frills. Perhaps the dominance of American popular culture – across film, television, books and music – has seeped into British English to the point that it’s eroded the really good bits. Maybe it’s the instant-gratification demands of the time we are living in. Or perhaps it’s the 280-character limit that’s placed on our interactions with the world. Whatever it is, it’s upsetting.

 

Perhaps it’s got more to do with the fact that we have less time to read or write with frills. Perhaps the dominance of American popular culture – across film, television, books and music – has seeped into British English to the point that it’s eroded the really good bits.

 

At Comma Chameleon, we like our language frilly. We think it should have the capacity to let people know how strongly we feel about something, or to hammer home the irony of a statement. Or even just be a bit more beautiful.

 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the mechanics of the degree adverb, along with some of the gradable adjectives it can be used with, in the hopes that we can revive it among our readers.

Gradable adjectives

We all know that adjectives are describing words, right? They are used to describe the qualities or characteristics of a noun. We also know that many adjectives describe qualities that can be measured in degrees – things like size, heat, importance, beauty, and age. These adjectives are often called gradable adjectives, because they can be used with degree adverbs or grading adverbs to add a bit more detail to the description, such as in ‘immensely important’ or ‘unusually weak’. A gradable adjective can also have comparative and superlative forms, such as ‘big, bigger, biggest’ and ‘weak, weaker, weakest.’

Here are some common gradable adjectives, with grading adverbs.

  • ‘Don’t talk to Pete, he’s extremely busy.’
  • This is a very important matter.
  • That Greggs pasty looks rather delicious.
  • My waistline is getting unusually big.
  • She’s dreadfully clever.

Non-gradable adjectives

Some adjectives describe a quality that is either completely present or completely absent, which means you can’t use them superlatively or comparatively – there is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ than an absolute. Neither can you grade them with adverbs like ‘very’ or ‘extremely’, for much the same reason. These are non-gradable adjectives. If something is ‘unique’, for example, it’s one of a kind. Despite what your Facebook timeline might suggest, ‘very unique’ is not a thing. Same goes for the adjective ‘dead’. Dead is an absolute. You can’t be ‘slightly’ dead or ‘really’ dead, even though ‘a bit dead’ might be how you choose to describe how you’re feeling after a particularly strenuous gym class.

 

Some adjectives describe a quality that is either completely present or completely absent, which means you can’t use them superlatively or comparatively – there is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ than an absolute. Neither can you grade them with adverbs like ‘very’ or ‘extremely’, for much the same reason.

 

You can, however, use a non-gradable adjective with a non-grading adverb to emphasise the extent of the quality. For example, you wouldn’t say ‘very unique’, but you might say ‘completely unique’, to hammer home its uniqueness. And you wouldn’t say ‘somewhat freezing’ (because ‘freezing’ is an absolute), but you might say ‘absolutely freezing’. Especially if you live in Manchester, like us.

Some common non-grading adverbs are:

  • absolutely
  • completely
  • definitely
  • essentially
  • exclusively
  • fully
  • perfectly
  • totally
  • undoubtedly
  • utterly
  • virtually

Grading adverbs or degree adverbs?

Let’s take a pause here to clear up an issue that had us tearing our hair out while researching this post. Is it a grading adverb or a degree adverb? We’ve used both terms already in this post, and it does rather confuse matters.

At first, we thought the two terms were interchangeable – perhaps some linguistic quirk of geographical persuasion, in the British English vs American English vein. It took some serious digging around Google (which we’re convinced dragged us, at one terrifying point, into the deeper depths of the Dark Web, such was the lack of clarity anywhere) to finally uncover the truth.

So here it is.

Adverbs of degree are used to indicate the intensity, degree or extent of the verb, adjective or adverb they are being used alongside. And, much like your curry options down at the local Indian takeaway, these adverbs of degree can be mild, medium, or strong in how they describe the intensity, degree or extent of the word they are modifying. They can also be absolute. These are all called degree adverbs.

 

Adverbs of degree are used to indicate the intensity, degree or extent of the verb, adjective or adverb they are being used alongside. And, much like your curry options down at the local Indian takeaway, these adverbs of degree can be mild, medium, or strong

 

Now, adverbs of degree that are mild, medium or strong are known as grading adverbs, because they speak to the grade or extent of the word they are modifying. Such as in ‘very tricky’. Those adverbs that are used to describe an absolute state or degree, such as ‘unique’, are known as non-grading adverbs. Because there isn’t a grade of an absolute.

So (we think) ‘degree adverb’ is the umbrella term, and ‘grading adverb’ speaks more specifically about the degree of… umm… degree.

And there you have it.

Anyway, moving on…

Gradable and non-gradable adjectives

Confusingly, some adjectives have more than one meaning or sense. In that way, it’s possible for the same adjective to be both gradable (with one sense) and non-gradable (with an alternate sense). Take the following, for example:

  • He’s got a very old car. (gradable, meaning not young)
  • I saw my old boyfriend in Pret yesterday. (non-gradable, meaning former)

Further complicating matters are words like ‘quite’, which can change meaning depending on the gradability of the adjective they are used with. For example:

  • It’s quite warm today. (gradable adjective, with ‘quite’ meaning fairly)
  • Are you quite certain? (non-gradable adjective, with ‘quite’ meaning absolutely)

Which adverb to use?

The common grading adverbs, used to describe a particular quality or characteristic with more pinpoint accuracy, are:

  • a bit
  • a little
  • almost
  • barely
  • dreadfully
  • entirely
  • extremely
  • fairly
  • highly
  • hugely
  • immensely
  • intensely
  • quite
  • rather
  • reasonably
  • slightly
  • totally
  • unusually
  • utterly
  • very

And that’s it, in a nutshell.

 

How do you feel about the degree adverb? Are you glad it’s on its way out, or do you lament its decline?

If your content is crying out for a little more frill, a little more weight, or a little more nuance, just drop us a message – we can write or edit our way around any subject (with or without grading adverbs). Let us know what it is you’re after – a blog post, a website rewrite, a complete brand-voice overhaul – and we’ll get you the copy you need.

Have a frightfully good day!

The Comma Chameleon team

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About Comma Chameleon

Comma Chameleon is a Manchester-based team of copywriters, editors and proofreaders, with decades of experience. We work with clients throughout the UK to bring colour to content and clarity to messages, no matter the size, format or platform. We simply love words, whether they’re yours or ours.

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