The loss of the adverb is a thoroughly sad state of affairs
Here at Pearson Towers, the last bastion of English as she was once spoken, we are mildly partial to the adverb. A noble thing, the purpose of which is to modify an adjective rather as brown sauce modifies a bacon sandwich. Now, as we learn from a new academic study, the adverb is also an endangered thing. Professor Paul Baker, of Lancaster University, has discovered a steep decline in “gradable adverbs” – the ones that allow us to reduce or increase our emphasis of a phrase. That’s not just slightly bad news. It’s dreadfully bad.
As always, it’s all the fault of our old friend the class system. Expressions such as “It’s awfully good of you” or “I’m terribly sorry” now smack of an antiquated and more genteel age. (Connoisseurs have always relished Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, who would say “teddibly sorry”. Try it out loud for yourself; it works! Nowadays, the only person who talks like that is the Queen.)
The adverb somehow softened the feeling you wanted to express while claiming to deepen it: all part of the middle-class code. Try explaining that to a 15-year-old, whose adverbial usage is restricted to “literally” and “totally”, the latter being squeezed, within a text, to “totes”. Obvs.
There is also an American influence at work. I was once on a book tour of the US, and felt deflated when someone in the audience would raise her hand and say: “I quite liked your book, Miss Pearson.” It took my publisher to explain that “quite”, which Brits employ to play down the adjective (“I quite enjoyed the film”), is wielded by Americans as an intensifier. To them, “quite like” means “love”, which must make Valentine’s Day a nightmare.
Most people, on both sides of the Atlantic, will neither notice nor care that the adverb is fast becoming extinct. After all, it’s hardly as noticeable as a panda. While it lived, however, the adverb was one of those small, delicate instruments with which we measured out our meaning – a tool of civilisation. I’ll miss it. Frightfully.