The loss of the ad­verb is a thor­oughly sad state of af­fairs

The Daily Telegraph - - Features -

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.

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