Lauren Krueger & Matthew David Brozik

Adverbs, for better or worse.

In Definally on November 2, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Dov S. of a magical land asks, “Can words like terrifically, fantastically, amazingly, etc. be used to describe something bad?” And Definally. responds, Why the hell not, Dov?

In fact, some adverbs often used today to modify positive (or “good”) adjectives (or verbs or other adverbs, for that matter) seem, when you look at them closely, to be better suited to describe bad things.

Terrifically, for instance: “Terrific” originally meant “causing terror”—so “terrifically” would have meant “in a manner that causes terror.” It was once more natural, therefore, to remark that someone was “terrifically snaggletoothed”… rather than, say, “terrifically buxom” (or merely “terrifically busy”).

Fantastically is terrifically interesting in a different way. “Fantastic” literally means “remote from reality.” That is: unreal. Also: bizarre. So to suggest that something is fantastic is not so much a compliment, really. “Fantastically” is just one step removed from “incredibly,” which is the functional equivalent of “unbelievably,” which can go either way, as far as ways to do something go. For every “(s)he’s unbelievably compassionate” there’s a “(s)he’s unbelievably insensitive.” Circling back to fantastic, though: Bear in mind that while many of us believe that imagination is an asset in a person, most of us prefer to deal with people who live in the real world, not some fantasy land (where gryphons abound and double rainbows are the norm). If your boss tells you that your ideas are fantastic, don’t assume you’ll be getting a raise.

Amazing(ly) is neutral, Definally. thinks. One might be amazed by anything at all, especially if one is simple. If you’ve only ever seen… um, red apples, then a green apple could be downright amazing. (But don’t quote us.)

All of this having been articulated with great eloquence, Definally. is not in favor of using adverbs, generally. Better than a strong adverb and a weak verb or adjective is a strong verb or adjective. But that’s a different lecture entirely.

  1. As in, “The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea.”

  2. And as in “New Yorkers are terrific people!”

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