Susanne Wagner

(University of Mainz)

Pretty incredible – preferences and changes in amplifier-adjective patterns world-wide

Among the most prominent means of intensifying in English are amplifiers modifying adjectives. For the past few decades, very (1), really (2) and so (3) seem to have shared the top slots in terms of relative frequency. Pretty (4) is a relative newcomer, mostly associated with American English (Biber et al. 1999).

(1) when they’re going off to relax in their very nice cottages in the countryside (GH G)
(2) It makes you feel really cool and powerful! (AU G)
(3) So glad this collection has been preserved . (US B)
(4) and im pretty sure you hav no proof at all that the earth is 4.3b years old? (sic; HK G)

Previous studies have analysed the historical development of amplifiers (Gonzalez-Diaz 2008, Mendez-Naya 2008), preferences according to genres and (major) varieties (Biber et al. 1999). Most attention has been paid to variation and change in the system and the role of social factors in it, where notions such as “recycling” (Ito & Tagliamonte 2003, Tagliamonte 2008) and rapid change (Barnfield & Buchstaller 2010, Macauley 2006, Tagliamonte & Roberts 2006) are emphasised.

This paper uses data from GloWbE (Davies 2013) to contrast and compare six major English-speaking regions (US, GB, Australia/New Zealand, Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, Africa) with regard to

  1. their distributions and preferences concerning amplifier use, including statistical analysis for all top 10 amplifier-adjective pairs
  2. their preferred amplifier-adjective pairs
  3. the collostructional/collexeme status (Gries & Stefanowitch 2004) of these pairs vis-à-vis each other and for same pairs across varieties
  4. the impact of adjective frequency on amplifier-adjective collexeme status.

Overall distributional preferences show some regional patterning (e.g. the same four amplifiers form the top 4 in the same order in all regions), but do not confirm earlier assumption regarding e.g. the spread of so (Tagliamonte & Roberts 2006). Rather, they indicate that results should not be generalised across amplifiers or adjectives, but maximally across amplifier-adjective pairs (examples (1) to (4) represent some typical 2-grams). A comparison of low-, mid- and high-frequency adjectives in amplified contexts shows that increased adjective frequency leads to increased cueness/collexeme  status. Collexeme analysis of 150 amplifier-adjective pairs also discloses broad international similarities but also regionally distinctive sub-patterns.

In addition, the status of pretty, a relative newcomer in the amplifier field, is discussed: pretty has clearly left behind its US origins and has spread both regionally and semantically, combining with an increasing number of absolute adjectives (such as incredible in the title). Interestingly, although certain regions are clearly not pretty territory, certain 2-grams nevertheless share outlier status world-wide (primarily pretty good). These results add to our knowledge of amplifier use in (varieties of) English; GloWbE is a suitable data source, particularly since this study uses totals cumulated across regions to avoid possible outliers/non-representative sections of the corpus (cf. Davies & Fuchs 2015).