The Development Of Pretty As An Intensifier English Language Essay

2218 words (9 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 English Language Reference this

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It is commonly acknowledged that the first thought about the definition of pretty is good-looking as an adjective when it is discussed; nevertheless, when this word is searched with ICE-GB, merely 20 instances are found as an adjective whereas 112 examples are adverbs, the frequency of which is nearly five times higher. This result is similar to the other corpora, such as British National Corpus with the frequency of 55.60 per million words as an adjective while 118.17 per million words as an adverb in the year of 2000. Accordingly, the lexicon pretty is normally used as an adverb rather than an adjective. What increases the adverbial usage of pretty? This essay is going to analyze the progress of the word pretty as an intensifier or a downtowner through the corpus of ICE-GB. First of all, the meaning of intensifiers or downtoners will be defined, followed by the historical alteration of pretty, and the way of grammaticalization. After that, collocations and meaning scales are also worth discussing. In the final part, the number of examples in spoken and written registers will be explained.

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Intensifiers and downtoners are semantically categorized as modifiers or degree words, which are traditionally under the classes of adjective and adverb. Syntactically, modifiers control elemental level rather than clausal level (Nevalainen and Rissanen, 2002: 361). This indicates intensifiers and downtoners to some extent vary the degree of the word that they modify. As defined by Biber (1999: 554-555), intensifiers enhance the degrees of the word on a scale, but downtoners decrease the scale on the gradable items. Moreover, although Bolinger (1972: 17) does not distinguish the difference between these two, he still calls degree words as intensifiers and divides them into four classes based on the scalar region: “boosters, compromisers, diminishers, and minimizers,” which are from higher level to the lower part of the scale. This completely shows that there must be a scale among modifiers, which amplify or lessen the words that they modify.

Backlund (1973: 69) states that pretty is a moderate degree adverb because it uses a weak statement to reinforce a positive meaning into the word that it modifies. The point of view is similar to the idea of a scale among modifiers, since moderate degree adverbs also increase or decrease the degree of modified words; that is to say, I can employ Bolinger’s idea to consider pretty as an intensifier, to be more specific, compromisers. Pretty as an intensifier modifies the adjectives because it shows the middle scale of the adverbs:

It was quite pretty stimulating stuff and I really enjoyed it.

…they’re you know pretty experienced counsellors.

It’s actually a pretty outstanding game so far.

…which was pretty obvious to most observers by this time,….

Pretty also modifies the adjectives:

…your first degree has got to relate pretty closely if you’re going to get on a course in most cases.

…then one comes down pretty squarely in the period before priests and Levites were separated.

…you saw last week we can date pretty exactly in the late sixth century.

I mean the the Tories started pretty messily.

The word pretty, according to Nevalainen, and Rissanen (2002: 367), can be traced back to Old English as a form of prættig with merely 10 instances, and mostly means cunning or cleverness in negative contexts. In Middle English period, the meaning of pretty extends into three categories: “(1) cunning, and clever, (2) manly, fine; fair-sized, considerable, great; of a beating, and (3) handsome; elegant; enjoyable and pleasant,” which Nevalainen and Rissanen claim that the development of the adverb pretty originates from the definition: fair-sized, considerable , and great (2002: 308). Furthermore, they also point out that although none of the examples show the use of pretty as an adverb in fifteenth century, historically, pretty or prettily starts to be adverb in the fifteenth century. Seventeenth century sees a significant increase in the number of instances of pretty as an adverb, which suggests that the intensifier meaning of pretty is gradually developing, and from the examples that Nevalainen and Rissanen exploit, pretty and very seem to be interchangeable (2002:309). The following instances taken from ICE-GB demonstrate very is the synonym of pretty:

This loss of heat would pretty soon lead to its reaching a very cold temperature….

I hope, pretty briefly because this has been a short case.

The first three lines are pretty easy really,

It’s pretty hard to park there anyway.

Later on, in the nineteenth century positive ideas are conveyed by the usage of pretty, which is found to modify adjectives and adverbs (Backlund 1973: 133).

If pretty is considered to be an intensifier, it may have undergone a process of “functional shift,” (Biscetti, 2006 :62) which means the procedure of intensifier forming is related to “semantic feature copying,” which is established by Lorenz in 2002. This refers to the fact that pretty becomes an intensifier through connecting the adjacent lexicon which has similar meaning. Therefore, Nevalainen and Risssanen’s idea about the origin of pretty as an adverb can be applied to examine the forming of intensifiers.

That’s pretty good. [great]

I think they did pretty well to get to end up like that. [great]

These two examples seem to represent that pretty pre-modifies its similar words, good and well, in the meaning of great. However, they cannot represent the whole conversion because these two words are the high frequency lexica that pretty collocates with in ICE-GB with thirteen and six times respectively. The other highly collocating examples found in ICE-GB do not show the “semantic feature copying”:

I am pretty sure that it is actually….

It is uh pretty quick.

If “functional shift” or “semantic feature copying” cannot completely explain the change of pretty, there are some other reasons. According to Mendez-Naya (2003: 372), “intensifiers can be said to undergo a process of grammaticalization,” on account of the fact that the function of a grammatical form are generated by the gradual loss of lexical idiosyncrasy. In addition, Ito (2003: 261) also points out “delexicalization,” which is a procedure of grammaticalization, and elucidates the intensifiers as a lexicon that the speakers’ comment or evaluation towards the word they want to express. Then, five stages are further illustrated from (a) original meaning, (b) expressing emphasis, (c) affirming truth of modified words, (d) attributive adjectives, to (e) intensification without the original meaning. Some instances are found in ICE-GB:

(17a) It was actually really pretty.

(17b) …it’s in a quiet three-lined street filled with pretty houses,….

(17c) I am pretty sure of that.

(17d) Apparently that’s a pretty good idea.

(17e) You were pretty stroppy then.

Pretty in (17a) is an adjective to show the original definition of pretty either in three of them in Middle English Dictionary. (17b) contains an adjective pretty as well, but it shows the highlighting of the word houses, and it to some extent weakens its other original meaning, such as clever. Pretty in (17c) enhances the sureness of the speaker, while in (17d) it becomes the attributive adjectives and modifies either good or idea. Pretty in both (17c) and (17d) still possess some meaning of great itself, while in (17e) it is purely an intensifier in view of the fact that pretty can straightforwardly be considered as its synonym very. These instances manifest the grammaticalization and make pretty seem to experience semantic shift.

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Apart from grammaticalization, the frequency of collocation that pretty has also interests the discussion value. There are eighty-four examples of adjectives that pretty modifies in ICE-GB. The first one and two are good and sure, which have thirteen and four examples respectively. Big, busy, and quick have three instances for each, and difficult, hard, impressive, low, slow, strong only have two examples. Backlund’s (1973: 134) states that “pretty primarily combines with positive or neutral words, and occasionally, with negative words to express irony.” This is perhaps due to the reason that pretty as an intensifier does not amplify or attenuate the gradable word up to the top of the scale or down to the bottom. It is interesting to notice that good is a positive word which is the highest tendency word to collocate with pretty, followed by sure, big, busy, and quick, the neutral words. The negative words that pretty collocates in ICE-GB are bad, dreary, grim, sad, wrecked, and stroppy, which only have one example. On the other hand, the adverbs that pretty modifies are six examples of well, two examples of quickly, and the others briefly, closely, exactly, high, messily, seriously, soon, sort of, and squarely. Similarly, there is a tendency for pretty to collocate with well, a positive word.

The meaning scale of pretty as an adverb is categorized by Backlund (1973: 134-143) into (i) lowering the emotional level, (ii) lowering criticism, (iii) function of weak statement, (iv) degree modifier, (v) expression of phrasal, (vi) self-compliment, and (vii) front-position.

(18i) …I suspect that’s a pretty daunting record,….

(18ii) Yeah I mean he’s a pretty normal boy.

(18iii) So I imagine you have pretty strict regulations concerning its us.

(18iv) …it would have been pretty well impossible to get in without a key.

(18v) …your memory was pretty good basically, and this wasn’t a problem.

(18vi) I’ve had a very uhm pretty straightforward sort of a life I’m afraid.

(18vii) Pretty much yeah I’ve got to admit.

The sentimental word daunting in (18i) is brought down by pretty because if this instance expressed without pretty, then it will be an explicit expression, showing the record is intimidating. In (18ii), pretty produces the idea that the interlocutor does not concern the thing he or she states, while pretty in (18iii) weakens the degree of strict, making the example sound euphemistic. Example (18iv) is more interesting because pretty modifies not only well but also the adjective impossible. The reason is based on the x’ schema (Santorini and Kroch, 2007): pretty dominates the following well and impossible in the phrase pretty well impossible. Examples (18v) and (18vi) manifest positive thoughts of the expresser, and these two instances are the evidence of the fact that pretty are likely to collocate with positive and neutral lexical. Front-position, as Backlund (1973: 143) claims, only occurs in the beginning of a full sentence, or can be recovered by the eliminated components, that is or it is. Hence, (18vii) can be uttered as ‘It’s pretty much. Yeah, I’ve got to admit.’

So far, the thing that has not been discussed is the instances pretty much, which appears in ICE-GB eight times. According to Backlund (1973: 138), pretty much can be regarded as almost since much gains the implication of almost and nearly from the phrase pretty much the same, and pretty is often excluded.

(19) I was pretty much advanced on the delegates.

Likewise, pretty well comprises a similar sense almost as pretty much, but it also contains “hesitance and reservation in the utterance (Backlund, 1973: 140).

(20) …those percentages were pretty well reversed.

Although Bolinger (1972: 215-217) asserts that when pretty much is used as a pre-modifier, it is a type of fusion, and it becomes a sentence modifier with the less restrictions of connecting verbs, no instances can be found in ICE-GB.

Finally, there are 134 instances that can be found in ICE-GB, and 20 of them are written registers while the others are spoken ones. This implies that pretty used as an intensifier is still rare in written works, just as Gonzalez-Diaz (2008: 233) claims that verbal situations are the initial stage that language change happens, and later written language is influenced if speakers have created the innovation.

In conclusion, pretty has experienced the language change from pure adjective clever to polysemy, and one of its meaning belongs to a modifier. Grammaticalization and the frequent collocations that pretty use may be the causes of the transformation. When people are inclined to utter the pattern of expression, the expression will gradually fixed, consequently leading to the novel usage of the word. That is the reason why there are some analogous meanings between pretty much and pretty well, even though pretty is considered as an intensifier. Overall, no matter how pretty develops, “intensification is the linguistic expression of exaggeration and depreciation.” (Bolinger, 1972: 20)

Totall: 2050

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