Are We Losing the Gradable Adverbs of British Understatement? Quite Possibly…

Cosmo Duff Gordon - Titanic - British understatementAn English academic has claimed that many English adverbs are falling out of common usage. The classic understatement of English speakers means our language has always been peppered with phrases such as ‘rather difficult’, ‘quite likely’, ‘awfully expensive’ and ‘terribly sad’. These trademark English expressions are under threat as we are doing away with gradable adverbs. Not only this, many traditional English words are being eroded by an influx of Americanisms. So does this mean the end for gradable adverbs and classic British understatement? Quite possibly…


Famous British Understatements with Gradable Adverbs

Gradable adverbs were always incredibly popular, especially in the ‘stiff upper lip’ English classic way of using understatements. For example, the words ‘awfully’, ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ have often been used to tone down the emotion of a word.

British understatement through gradable adverbs is a stylistic mannerism, which forms a large part of traditional British culture and history. The English never like to make a fuss!

The insouciant attitude of the British has been exploited a lot in comedy. For example, in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, the character of Death gatecrashes a party carrying a scythe and one guest comments: “that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?” Here the word ‘rather’ is a gradable adverb to tone down the terror of the situation.

In another scene in the same Monty Python film, a character wakes up to find he has “rather a nasty mosquito bite” (actually his leg has been bitten off by a tiger). He comments that it “stings a bit”. The phrase ‘stings a bit’ might be used normally to refer to a small pain – not the agony of an amputated leg!

Monty Python 'The Meaning of Life' - British understatement gradable adverbs

Perkins wakes up to discover he has a rather nasty mosquito bite: “It stings a bit”

The Monty Python sketch is supposed to have been inspired by a polite exchange between the Earl of Uxbridge and the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo.

As the Earl’s leg was blown off by canon fire, he reportedly said: ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ The Duke was said to have responded: ‘By God, sir, so you have!’

Another famous real life understatement came from the Antarctic explorer Captain Oates. He sacrificed his life so his companions could have a better chance of survival. Before walking out into the blizzard, Oates famously said: “I am just going outside and may be some time”.

He was going outside forever, so ‘I may be some time’ was rather understating the issue (so too is this sentence by using the gradable adverb ‘rather!).

Captain Oates - British understatement gradable adverbs

Captain Lawrence Oates: “I may be some time”

The History of British Understatement

This type of understatement has always been a part of the English language. It can be traced back to early literature and can be seen in the Old English poem Beowulf.

The stylistic mannerism of understatement can also be found in Old Norse poetry and is thought to be Germanic in origin.

Understatement serves to change the emotion of a word, sometimes in irony, self-effacement, humour, emphasis or for tempering purposes.

This ‘tempering’ of an emotion is classically British because stereotypical English behaviour is centred around never wanting to make a fuss about anything. So even the most important events get ‘played down’.


‘Stiff Upper Lip’ Behaviour

You can see this behaviour in television progammes with typical ‘English gentlemen’. For example, Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Poirot often uses typical British understatement when he speaks. Some of his favourite words are ‘rather’ and ‘quite’.

This character epitomises the ‘stiff upper lip’, mild-mannered, polite and insouciant English way of speaking and acting.

‘Keeping a stiff upper lip’ is an English expression that means not crying. When you cry your lip trembles, so if you keep a stiff upper lip, this means you don’t cry!

Captain Arthur Hastings - Poirot - British understatement gradable adverbs

English gentleman Captain Arthur Hastings from Poirot

Americanisms Challenging British English

Professor Paul Baker, professor of linguistics and English language at Lancaster University, has also said that British English is being challenged by the increasing use of Americanisms.

On analysing millions of words in British and American texts, Baker has discovered much change over the last 80 years.

British people are still using classic British spellings (‘colour’, never ‘color’) and vocabulary (‘holiday’, never ‘vacation’) but we are slowly losing our adverbs.

Gradable Adverbs Falling Out of Favour

The biggest casualty of British English is the decline in ‘gradable’ adverbs. These adverbs are used to change the force of other words in the sentence. They are used to great effect in classic British understatement.

Professor Baker comments: “If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise”. “So ‘the worst day ever’ is ‘things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be’.”

These gradable adverbs help to downplay any situation by tempering the word that follows.  A situation that is ‘rather bad’ seems less serious that one that is simply ‘bad’.

Communication Problems 

Although British understatement can be amusing and characterful, it can cause problems with understanding if a British person is speaking with a non-British person.

Americans often underestimate the severity of a feeling or situation if an English speaker understates it or ‘plays it down’ in this insouciant way.

This is a major difference in the ways that American and British English speakers express themselves. The English tend to use more irony, sarcasm and understatement in their comments, while Americans are more likely to speak directly.

American and British communication problemsAmerican Confusion Over British Understatement

This difference in communication styles can cause big problems. This was highlighted in the famous misunderstanding in 1951 between the British Brigadier Thomas Brodie and the American General Robert H Soule during the Korean War.

The American asked for a progress report during the Battle of Imjin River. As 10,000 Chinese troops advanced on 650 British soldiers from the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Englishman said: “A bit sticky. Things are pretty sticky down there”.

This classic British understatement using ‘pretty’ as a gradable adverb was supposed to convey the desperation of the situation in an understated ‘English’ way. ‘Sticky’ means difficult in this context, but is a word that normally conveys a mild difficulty, not a full-scale battle.

Unfortunately, to an American ear the situation didn’t sound too bad (‘too’ here works as a gradable adverb). General Soule held off sending support with inevitably disastrous consequences for the British.


‘A Rather Serious Evening’

Another famous real life British understatement was issued by Cosmo Duff-Gordon, when giving testimony to the Titanic inquiry. Commenting on perhaps the most famous shipping disaster in history, he said: “We had rather a serious evening, you know.”

Cosmo Duff-Gordon here uses the gradable adverb ‘rather’ to tone down the emotional intensity of the statement further. The sinking of the Titanic was obviously much more than ‘rather a serious evening’!

Titanic disaster - newspaper seller

A Distinctive Trait of British English

Despite the long history of its use, Professor Baker’s research suggests that the trademark British understatement using gradable adverbs might be on the way out of the language.

Although this could be good news for enhancing the clarity of communication, many English speakers will be sorry to lose all British insouciance and that understated attitude created with gradable adverbs.

Our laid-back way of talking is quite a trait of the language and gives British English a distinctive character.

We hope some of the British English language traits can survive in the modern world, including a few gradable adverbs. It would be rather a shame to lose this terribly famous part of British speech, culture and history and its potential comedic value.


Share your thoughts 

Do you ever get confused by British understatement?

Do you remember any funny incident where understatement was used to good effect?

Should we try to keep gradable adverbs – or do they make communication too difficult?

What are your favourite adverbial expressions? Do you have a favourite gradable adverb?

Do you know any other famous insouciant comments using gradable adverbs? Let us know your favourite in the comments!


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