Number one for English language teachers

Genetically modified?

Type: Article

According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), a grammatical modifier is "an adjective or adverb that changes the meaning of a noun, pronoun or verb". Strange, that. Because to the vast majority of the British business community it’s a word that changes absolutely nothing at all.

For example, when a German manager says there is a slight problem, he can probably calibrate the slightness to three decimal places. When a Brit says it, you can be sure it’s anything but slight. The conversation might go something like this (note the modifiers):

- Ah, Hans, morning. Erm, it’s a little difficult to talk right now. Can I call you back?
- Er, sure. Everything OK?
- Yes, fine. We’ve got a slight problem here at the plant, that’s all.
- Anything I can do?
- No, not really. It’s on fire.

This is not just a case of British understatement. You may recall the Monty Python sketch in which an army officer, who has just had his leg bitten off by a tiger, is asked how he feels. "Stings a bit," he replies. The key phrase here is "a bit". A bit, a little, a tad, quite, rather, slightly, somewhat. What is it about these meaningless little modifiers we just can’t resist? Could it possibly be genetic?

It works both ways, of course. If our softeners don’t really soften, then our intensifiers don’t intensify either. When a Brit responds to your business proposal with "very interesting", you may as well book your flight home. Anything said "with the greatest respect" means, of course "with the utmost contempt". Most sentence adverbs lie as well. "Hopefully" routinely expresses despair and a point mentioned "incidentally" is likely to be the most important thing on the agenda.

Take a lesson from American author Stephen King who observed: "The Road to Hell is paved with adverbs."

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Lovely piece Mark, which serves to illustrate the extent to which the English language is particularly adept at employing irony, whether written or spoken, to the greatest of effect. You might also have added one of my favourites, "with all due respect"; which is actually an ironic stab with two edges - since it offers no respect at all and then compounds the insult by adding that this is exactly what the listener deserves. Intonation delivers the words with the contempt intended but, aside from native speakers, you are likely to be met with a roaring silence as your carefully chosen insults fly far above the listener´s head. A complex and wonderful language!

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