Learn English pragmatics

Rather interesting


Michael Rundell noted in his post a couple of weeks ago that there was a clear British/American divide in the use of the expression “Thanks a bunch”: it’s often used sincerely in American English, but ironically in British. That distinction, in one respect, is the tip of an iceberg: the iceberg of adverbial modification. In fact there are many ways in which Brits and Yanks express the degree to which they do, love, hate, esteem, disparage, or qualify something in ways that differ only by a word or two. The points of difference are all adverbials, that is, single words or expressions that modify a verb or modify another modifier. Many of these adverbials can be called intensifiers because they serve to make the meaning of the word they modify stronger, just as “a bunch” does with “thanks”.

As a point of departure, I’ll begin with something I’m pretty sure about: if you use the expression “pretty sure,” there’s a 2:1 chance that you’re an American, or under the influence of American English. The expression occurs in most varieties of English, but Americans are more likely to be pretty sure – or to remark that something is pretty good, pretty cool, or pretty darn close – because pretty is the intensifier of choice in informal American English. Why is this?

It may be because Americans are rather reluctant to use rather as an intensifier. To Americans, rather in front of an adjective sounds a bit formal and a bit British. Though this may seem rather odd, rather strange, or rather silly, the British use of rather is much more frequent than American in rather + adjective collocations such as these.

I know that I’m quite right about that because corpus data makes it quite clear. Corpus data also makes it quite clear that Brits are, quite simply, wild about saying things like “quite right” and “quite clear” – and of course, “quite simply.” Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to opt for “pretty clear,” and to just say “right” when someone or something is right, rather than modifying the adjective, because technically, “right” shouldn’t really admit of degrees: perhaps Americans are inclined to think that something is either right, or it’s not.

Whether you quite agree with that will depend on which variety of English you’re most comfortable with; Americans and Brits don’t quite agree on what quite means. The usage note in the Macmillan Dictionary puts it this way:

In British English quite usually means ‘fairly’: The film was quite enjoyable, although some of the acting was weak. When American speakers say quite, they usually mean ‘very’: We’ve examined the figures quite thoroughly. Speakers of British English sometimes use quite to mean ‘very’, but only before words with an extreme meaning: The whole experience was quite amazing.

That’s a fairly accurate way of expressing the differences in usage (as an American is inclined to say), but you could also say that it’s somewhat  accurate, rather accurate, quite accurate or pretty accurate. In all of those cases, you might be giving hints as to where your allegiance lies, but you wouldn’t be revealing your linguistic identity unambiguously. If you were to say that it was mighty accurate though, you’d be giving yourself away, because Brits don’t use mighty as an intensifier except when they’re sending up Americans. Corpus data shows many instances of “mighty fine” in British English, but they’re nearly all examples of Brits poking fun at Americans. That’s the other side of the coin from Americans being able to intimate imitate Britishness in a light-hearted way by simply saying “Oh, rather!” or “Oh, quite!”

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Orin Hargraves


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