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Legal English Lessons

Gradable Adverbs

British people used to use adverbs such as 'fairly', 'awfully', 'quite' and 'rather ' a lot. Watch any British film from the 1940s and 1950s and the actors will often use them. Why are they less popular now?

In a book written by Professor Paul Baker of Lancaster University called American and British English: Divided by a Common Language, Professor Baker has explored the changes in American and British English since the 1930s and whether the two branches of English have become more similar over time.

During the research, Professor Baker discovered that gradable adverbs such as fairly, very, quite and rather have become far less prevalent in books and movies on both sides of the Atlantic. These words have traditionally been used to reduce the strength of a phrase and so British people, usually known for being diplomatic and indirect, would use them frequently to soften the effect of bad news. An American might say "This is the worst day of my life" while a British person might once have said "This has been rather a disappointing day." There is an example from the film Brief Encounter on this page to show this.

Why is this the case? Certainly, we Brits are exposed to a lot of US movies and TV shows and have probably seen that the directness shown by actors in these shows has not resulted in anything bad - so we copy them.

Studies show that Americans have been moving to this more informal use of English for decades and that British are following them in this. Although we are admittedly 30 years behind.

Baker also researched how vocabulary changes between the US and the UK (color/colour, soccer/football) and whether one side has become more dominant. It seems as though there has been no real change in this issue. In the 2000s, Brits used an American spelling about 11% of the time while Americans used a British spelling 10% of the time so there was no real difference.

While some on Twitter seem to worry about American words taking over from British ones, there are few instances of this actually occurring. We still say holiday rather than vacation, football instead of soccer and petrol rather than gas - and we seem almost delighted to do so. Some American words such as lawyer, cop and movie have begun to be more familiar to us though.

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