During the 1970s, the term submodifier caught fire in systemic and functional grammar circles. Sadly, it has so far failed to gain an appreciation with the general public and only one family of English dictionaries uses submodifier as a label. The Oxford English Dictionary, mother of all English dictionaries, has not even gotten around to defining the term yet. We hope that by shining the spotlight briefly on the term, we might win over a few converts, as well as alert readers to the nuances of the delightful class of words so designated.

What is a submodifier? If you learned English grammar back in the day when we did (as a compulsory subject in – what else – grammar school), the closest thing to it was intensive or intensifier – as the VT def says, "a modifier that has little meaning except to intensify the meaning it modifies." So in other words, a submodifier is a modifier of a word or other lexical element that is itself a modifier. We like the term submodifier for this class of adverbials and we enjoy spotting them in the wild. It is a much more gratifying sport than, say, birdwatching, because you're assured of success at every attempt: the human propensity to qualify characteristics and to remark distinctions of rank, degree, or quality – often when none are present or obvious – assures that submodifiers will roll off tongues whenever tongues are wagging.

That propensity aside, the notion of a submodifier having little intrinsic meaning may lead you to wonder what role they play in discourse. In fact, we all convey and pick up quite a lot of information from the use of submodifiers, apart from their limited semantic role, whether consciously or not. To begin with, they are often a dialect marker: Americans never fail to note the frequent (and curiously nonconsequential) use of rather and quite as submodifiers in British English (his manner was rather abrupt; the soup was quite cold). Brits, on the other hand, find a ready source of sendup material in the submodifiers that are viewed as typically American, mighty and pretty being perhaps the most obvious.

The New Oxford American Dictionary marks more than 300 entries with the submodifier label, from absolutely and  enormously to remotely and wretchedly. How do we manage to choose among so many words that serve mainly to qualify a characteristic? Cliché and collocation surely account for quite a lot of usage: why settle for "Fantastic!" when you can cry "Absolutely fantastic!"? "Fundamentally different" is bound to be more ear- and eye-catching than merely "different," and there's no good reason to be merely unimpressed if you can be "singularly unimpressed." It's patently obvious, isn't it? Abundantly clear.

If you were presented with a paragraph that contained "decidedly shaky," "outstandingly successful," and "suspiciously similar," you might conclude, without any other information provided, that you were reading a piece of journalism: such word pairs as these are the stock-in-trade of writers who fill up column inches. This points up another function of submodifiers: to signal register or genre. Just as journalists commandeer a wide range of standard and collocationally limited submodifiers, speakers in a different context employ a handful of more general-purpose submodifiers that signal slang and informality, such as clean, totally, plumb, and awful (he's totally wasted; she looks awful bad).  Among these we would also classify what we call the "minus 3C" submodifiers, since they so often signal a lack of confidence, conviction, or concentration in the speaker: kinda, sorta, really, real, like.

Do submodifiers date? In fact, a few have gone out of fashion over the centuries, and it's possible that some of the more faddish ones in use today will be noted by linguists of the future as a characteristic of language of our era. Uncommon had about a century-long run as a submodifier before giving way to the more predictable uncommonly. Wondrous stuck around for about three hundred years and appears, for example, in Richardson:  "They tell me she is grown wondrous pretty." (from Pamela, 1740). Sore, a King Jamesy kind of submodifier, is now retired from English in that capacity but had quite a run from 1300 to 1850 or so; it merits a 3,000-word entry in the OED, appears several dozen times in the Bible (e.g., Judges 15:18: "And he was sore athirst, and called on the LORD, and said . . ."), and a handful of times in Shakespeare ("I hear the King my father is sore sick," from Henry IV Part II).

Modern listeners with their ears to the ground may have noticed a couple of recent submodifier shifts, both late-20th century developments that are now established in informal American English . One is a development with so. So is an indispensable word in English, with many unique jobs to do in addition to its longstanding submodifier status. It has lately jumped the strict submodifier box to modify a wider range of lexical elements, many of which don't normally admit of comparison or qualification (those shoes are so last season; I so need to find a restroom; you are so not invited to my bat mitzvah.)

The other recent shift, also an innovation of American English, is the promotion of way to a more standard submodifier role. Way has long been used in North American English as an informal equivalent for the submodifier far (e.g., you're driving way too fast; this cheesecake is way better than Aunt Nora's). Now, way is submodifying ordinary adjectives and becoming an informal synonym for extremely: she sounded way happy on the phone; his mom's a square but his dad is way cool.

Language developments such as these with so and way are of the kind sometimes derided by soi-disant usage mavens as being improper, unacceptable, ungrammatical, or a sign that the language is in decline. Such protests don't usually gain any traction – they tend to die with their exponents. These new usages probably still sound a bit off to older speakers, but they may not even be perceived as nonstandard by the people who use them most – young people, of the Slayer Slang generation – and when that generation is adjudicating usage and writing the books about it, who will know the difference? The shifts in function are a good example of the way that language evolves by baby steps, and of the routine workload that submodifiers happily take on.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 1st 2010, 3:52 AM
Comment by: richard S.
Sub-modifiers are to language what inflation is to our savings. The more they are used, the moe they progressively devalue the value of our writing.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 4:30 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
This is interesting stuff, but why not just call them adverbs of degree? Am I missing something? Is the term submodifier being used to denote something different?

Your points about language change and the use (or otherwise) of words like sore, wondrous, way and so, remind me of the (relatively) recent appearance in British Black English (and increasingly most young people's sociolect in urban areas, my own kids included) of "bare".

It seems to work in the same way (sorry) as "way" with expressions like "She was acting bare stupid" (where you could substitute it for "really" or "very"), but also as a kind of quantifier like "There was bare people there" or "You've got bare skills": the last two being used in a similar sense to "lots of" or "many".

Is this the same sort of thing? Would "bare" qualify as a submodifier?
Thursday July 1st 2010, 5:54 AM
Comment by: Paula T.
We should very clearly use submodifiers judiciously sparingly, although sometimes it's well hard not to.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 5:58 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
First, I would note the ambiguity of a word like "quite". In Britain "The soup was quite cold." could mean "The soup was rather cold" or it could mean "The soup was completely cold". If spoken the difference would be evidenced by inflection; otherwise one would have to look to the context.
Secondly, may I say that the use of "pretty" in phrases such as "pretty well" and "pretty much" was commonplace in spoken British English (at least in the Home Counties) in my youth. I am now 74.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 6:20 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
It seems to me that submodifiers are not nonconsequential, but capable of enriching the picture one immediately forms in one’s mind after reading for example “his manner was rather abrupt”. This is to say that, it says something about the manner of perceiving of the person uttering this sentence (the sentence was formulated after a certain comparison was made between the two schemas abrupt/non abrupt manner, and implies that the overall manner perceived tended toward abruptness, which in turn implies that some non abrupt elements might have been present, but perceived as insignificant in determining the overall manner; the word “rather” remains, in a way, to be further determined by the context (rather abrupt because of some emotional state, particular situation, etc., and similarly we may interpret “the soup was quite cold” ).
Taking the example of "Absolutely fantastic!", “absolutely” conveys perhaps more enthusiasm on the part of the person uttering it (though of course the context – we are not told what’s “absolutely fantastic!” – would determine whether it is enthusiasm (the person cannot see it better than that, whatever that is) or irony (the person cannot see it worst than that, whatever that is) than “fantastic” on its own.
Concerning "Fundamentally different" I cannot see it in the same class with “Abundantly clear”, as the difference might be indeed superficial or fundamental, while something is either clear or not, therefore “abundantly”, in the example given, in my mind, refers to an abundance of information given to make clear what was the matter under consideration (and therefore can be seen as a modifier of something implied and not of the word “clear”; would we not have in mind what is implied, it would make it into an incorrect way of expressing oneself, or perhaps, among people knowing each other very well, a shorthand of an entire paragraph).
As for replacing “extremely” or “far” with “way”, it seems to me that “extremely happy” not only sounds better than “way happy”, but conveys a different meaning (perhaps “highway happy” might come close to it!!!).
Thursday July 1st 2010, 6:31 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
The submodifier fauna (or flora) is quite interesting indeed. It betrays a lot, and I need them a lot...

But I am a little astonished that is called a sub-modifier. Isn't it a modifier, or an adverb of modality? 'Abundantly clear' to me looks like an evaluative adjective along with a modifier/ intensifier. A sub-modifier to me would be something like the 'very' in *'very absolutely clear', or maybe 'way' in "way too much". Or am I missing a point somewhere as a non-native speaker of English?
Thursday July 1st 2010, 7:04 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
@Geoffrey BH

I'd agree with your point about "pretty": just look at the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" for a use of it in the late 1970s!

As for "quite", I suspect that younger speakers are no longer aware of the second usage to which you refer. I hardly hear it any more and I'm no longer young.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 8:41 AM
Comment by: RockMVR (Leesburg, VA)
Use submodifiers in my writing? Never. But with my kids? All the time. Submodifiers can be the secret language of groups, identifying members who understand the nuance and enjoy the dramatic implications these words bring to their speech. Listen to any series on Nick (ICarly, Big Time Rush, etc.) and you'll hear not only common teen- and tween-speak submodifiers but a vast group-inclusive vocabulary. And since the cardinal rule of strategic communications is to consider your audience when crafting your message and delivery, I'm SO there.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 8:56 AM
Comment by: William T. (Melbourne, FL)
I am going to totally refrain from responding inasmuch as I am way too out of it by reason of being quite antiquated.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Ray S.
Many submodifiers are highly regional- or age-specific. Around 2002, I noticed that our 9-year old nephew from the Boston area had suddenly begun using "wicked" as a submodifier ("wicked cool" "wicked fast"). He and his friends had apparently picked this up from older contemporaries. I heard this usage all over the Boston area, but not where we live, in Washington DC, and not, as far as I can tell, anywhere else outside of eastern New England. I did not hear "wicked" from those over 30, or from girls (though they picked it up a few years later). I'm guessing it started out among white working class youths in a few towns in the Boston area, as a marker for class and place, then spread across the Boston area, including to younger boys, and to boys from professional-class families (in the same way that new words in black street dialect often spread to more affluent white youth), then to girls. But I think it's still confined to Boston and environs.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Ben W.
Am I right in noting that Vice President Biden deployed an eye-catching submodifier when eh congratulated the president on health care reform as being "a f***ing big deal"?
Thursday July 1st 2010, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
@Ray S: 'Wicked' isn't confined just to the east coast. I'm from Minnesota and I hear it all the time among the younger set. It may well have originated in Boston (where I went to college in the 80's) but I think if you asked anyone under 20, they'd say it was common usage.

@Ben W: You beat me to mentioning perhaps the most useful, or at least the most satisfying, submodifier of all. Orin probably avoided mentioning it out of decorum... but as a submodifier it's f***ing awesome!
Thursday July 1st 2010, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for many enjoyable and interesting comments; here are a few of my own.

Merkatron: I think the term "submodifier" is better and more inclusive than "adverb of degree" (besides just being more fun to say). Some submodifiers are phrases and go beyond the normal bounds of what is understood by "adverb." Yes, the use of "bare" that you mention qualifies – good example of a regional or dialectally limited submodifier, which others have also mentioned.

Antonia D: I do not suggest that submodifiers are generally nonconsequential, but from an American POV, many typical British uses of them are. It is fairly common practice in Americanizing British text to simply strike through many of the rathers, quites, and verys, with little effect other than to improve readability. Additionally (re Merkatron's comment), "quite" as a degree between "somewhat" and "very" is a distinction that is not generally recognized in American English.

Ray S. et al: Thanks for bringing up this point. Another regional submodifier is "hella," allegedly originating in N California but now getting more currency elsewhere – especially as a candidate to become the prefix for numbers on the order of 10 to the 27th power: http://www.the33tv.com/news/kdaf-facebook-campaign-for-hella-story,0,5516971.story

Ben W., Wood F.: I did in fact consider including a paragraph about submodifiers beginning with f (f***ing, freakin', friggin', frickin') but held back for the sake of decorum. Too f***ing bad.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
For more on hella, see " An Ode to 'Hella'," recently contributed by high school student Samantha Strimling.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Orin, I still prefer 'intensifier' to 'sub-modifier'. I find it more descriptive of what the word's job.

And yes, I do agree with those who say limit them to speech. I guess we have to make an exception for journalists. That might go back to the days when authors wrote stories for papers (Charles Dickens for one), and were paid by the word. Is that true, by the way? He did seem to use a great deal of them, always well.

I loved the reference to Joe B's comment! There's perhaps a double meaning there, too! LOL Matter of perspective!

And I've used what was said to be British for years, decades, even growing up in the US. I think those might have crossed the ocean with the troops in WWI or II! Certainly, Masterpiece Theater helped!

It's so good to be reading again. I've got a good bit to catch up with. Family heart attack intervened and interferred. But we are back at home now, and not spending all the day in hospital!
Thursday July 1st 2010, 11:25 AM
Comment by: Mary Lee M.
Reading this article was a nice start for my day! Being somewhat antiquated myself (not totally antiquated, you see, just somewhat antiquated), I have observed a number of words in this category that were regional and age-specific get picked up and spread by mass media entertainment and gradually accepted as standard as our language evolves. It seems to me that in our day of global communication, these evolutionary steps in our language may no longer be the baby steps they have been in centuries past. For those of us who keep the lights on by correcting the word usage of others (I write and edit English text for a global company)keeping it professional and correct while allowing for the changes that are underway even as we write will continue to be a challenge.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
I'm intrigued by the use of "so" as a submodifier. It seems to me that, in the past, the word "so" signaled the first part of a two-part statement; the second part began with the word "that": "It was so cold that I nearly froze", "I miss you so much that I think of you constantly", "The puppy was so cute that I wanted to take him home with me."

Sometimes the "that" was not said but was understood: "I'm so lonesome I could cry", "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse", "The test was so hard I'm sure I failed it."

Now, though, the second part of the statement is often omitted: "I am so sorry!", "Your hair looks so cute!", "This topic is getting so boring!" These "so" statements seem to imply the same intensity that in the past would have been expressed by a "that" sentence or phrase, quantifying the adjective. In writing, sometimes I want to see or use an ellipsis, the three dots that indicate that the thought is incomplete: "This is getting so complicated ...!"

I wonder if other people, in these instances, share my inclination to say "... that WHAT?"
Thursday July 1st 2010, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting article and comments.

(Just picking a nit.... "So in other words, a submodifier is a modifier of a word or other lexical element this is itself a modifier." Either "this" should have been "that" or else I'm missing something.)

[Fixed! —Ed]

If that is so, then Kristine F's comments about "so" are misplaced. In the example "I am so sorry," the "sorry" is obviously not itself a modifier.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 5:20 PM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Just for the record, there's a nice deluge of submodifiers in a short story published recently by The New Yorker: Joshua Ferris's "The Pilot." You can see how they certainly clutter the narrative with a layer of debris that slows the story down, but they are true to the character through whom the narrator is speaking. Just note the first two sentences: "He hadn't heard from Kate Lotvelt in two weeks. Not that he absolutely should've necessarily." And a bit further on: "He couldn't be totally one-hundred-per-cent sure". They're everywhere.

Harkening back to a post from a few weeks ago, the story features the word fan-boy: "He had rhapsodized in the past to mere cameramen, and his impulse upon returning home had always been to beat the fan-boy in him into a permanent coma."
Thursday July 1st 2010, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Matt M. (Lake Forest, CA)
I'm new to this blog and enjoyed this article and the comments!
Thursday July 1st 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Don H., I agree with you that the questionable sentence in the second paragraph of Hargraves'
article should have read "So in other words, a submodifier is a modifier of a word or other lexical element THAT is itself a modifier."

But in "I am so sorry", don't you think "sorry" is a modifier (adjective), modifying "I"? I'd say that each of these sentences (I'm leaving out the "so") ends in a modifier: It was cold, The puppy was cute, I'm lonesome, I'm hungry, The test was hard, I'm sorry, Your hair looks cute, This topic is boring, This is getting complicated.

Sidebar: You might notice that I'm leaving out "I miss you much" because that's a strange little sentence, isn't it! Now that I think about it, "much" seems to always be used with a submodifier: too, very, not, not very, so, so very, not so, ever so, etc. "Much" reminds me of a very proper young woman who doesn't like to go out in public without a companion!

In the article, when Hargraves talks about "so" (third paragraph from the end), he doesn't use any examples of "so" being used as a submodifier. He notes that "so" " ... has lately jumped the strict submodifier box to modify a wider range of lexical elements ...", and his quirky-sounding examples show it doing just that.

In my comment, I think my examples do show "so" as a submodifier; I'm simply noting that sometimes a second part of the statement, beginning with "that", seems to be missing!

OK, your turn! Nit Pickers Welcome Here!
Thursday July 1st 2010, 9:26 PM
Comment by: Joe ..."crazy about words" (greenport, NY)
Loved this essay and agree with you, Orin, that usage will dictate the evolution of our incredible language. Some fads become fashion, while others fade. We are still free to speak as we wish and only have to be concerned that we are understood by our target audience.
It seems to me that your sub-modifiers are, in most cases, redundancies used for emphasis. Sure we could live without them, but why? They are colorful and creative. "way far" gets my attention more readily than "very far."
Thanks.
Thursday July 1st 2010, 11:46 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
@ Kristine F.
I'm no grammarian, but I think I learned in the sixth grade that "sorry" in the sentence, "I am sorry" is simply a predicate nominative (which I guess they now call "subject complement"). Which would leave "so" as an adverb modifying "is" telling the degree to which it (in fact) is "sorry."
(I could be completely wrong, I admit.)
Friday July 2nd 2010, 12:42 AM
Comment by: Lesley M. (Cumberland, RI)
In recent months I have noticed the word "so" used to begin a response to a question asked by an interviewer. It is similar the use of the word "well" to open a sentence in response to a question. Would this be considered an exclamation?
Friday July 2nd 2010, 1:34 AM
Comment by: Marshall S. (Fairview, OR)
First off, Dr. Hargraves was showing off a little by using "soi-disant". That's probably OK in this forum and it did stretch my vocabulary but it did not further the clarity of the communication.

Second, as an engineer who has to use the Engish language to communicate abstract information to a varied audience with clarity and precision, I believe that the name of these words is correctly chosen as sub-modifier. They can and do shade the meaning of the primary modifier in any of several directions, intensification being only one. As one example, properly chosen sub-modifiers help communicate to my audience the probably accuracy of data I may be presenting. I've used sub-modifiers (I think the name should be hypenated.) for years without having any idea what their grammatical name was.

I must also confess that obfuscation is probably the most common and by far the worst use of sub-modifiers in technical writing.
Friday July 2nd 2010, 3:29 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Orin Hargraves: I haven’t thought that you suggested that submodifiers are generally nonconsequential, because in your first paragraph you wrote that “We hope that by shining the spotlight briefly on the term, we might win over a few converts, as well as alert readers to the nuances of the delightful class of words so designated”. I was only referring to some of the examples given in your paper’s third, fourth and eighth paragraphs (with the aim – and in support of what you were saying in the first paragraph - of showing that even in those examples one could find something to think about, that is, the submodifiers were not nonconsequential, at least in my view). As the topic is fascinating (especially for people interested in detecting, in the multitude of nuances the language can express, the subtlety of thoughts), I have enjoyed reading your paper very much and I am looking forward to read other papers you’ll write in the future.

Anonymous: Is it not a pleonasm we notice in " totally one-hundred-per-cent sure”?
Friday July 2nd 2010, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I find that I use many submodifiers in my first drafts, each one acting as a lubricant to keep the words flowing, and then I cut out about 90% of them as I revise. A high school English teacher recommended this method of getting rid of submodifiers:

"If you use 'very,' cross that out and put in 'damn,' but then you can't use a curse word, so cross out damn."
Friday July 2nd 2010, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Don H. - Predicate Nominative? Subject complement? Those are such long words, AND they are compound words (aren't they?) ... you must be right!

Seriously, though, is it possible that we are both right - are predicate nominatives a type of adjective? When we (sixth graders included) are deciding which part of speech a certain word is, we have only eight choices, traditionally: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection ... so "sorry" would have to be an adjective, wouldn't it? Adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs. So, do we agree that submodifiers are adverbs? In "I am so sorry", I guess the question is whether "so" (an adverb) modifies the verb "am" or the adjective "sorry"; in the latter case (but not the former), "so" would be a submodifier.

In the article, Hargrave's sample sentences include "His manner was rather abrupt ... the soup was quite cold ... he's totally wasted ... she looks awful bad ... she sounded way happy on the phone." These sentences are structurally similar to "I am so sorry." Would you say that "rather", "quite", "totally", "awful" and "way" aren't submodifiers, because you think they modify the verbs before them (was, is, looks, sounded) rather than the adjectives after them (abrupt, cold, wasted, bad, happy)? Then, what sentence would you use that includes a submodifier?

I am doing all this thinking and writing by choice, and I'm enjoying it, and I haven't even had breakfast yet! How nerdy is that? Such is the pathetic life of a recovering English teacher. Thanks for challenging me to rev up my brain so early in the morning (9:25 here in CA)!
Friday July 2nd 2010, 1:06 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Don H. - Wait a minute - I've been thinking in the shower, and I'm not at all sure about something - in "I am a genius. I am brilliant." (sentences that we both might accurately say) it seems to me that "genius" might be a predicate nominative, and "brilliant" might be a predicate adjective. Or not. I'm going to go eat breakfast now.
Friday July 2nd 2010, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
@Kristine
You're right about the predicate adjective thing. (It's been a long time since sixth grade, and "I am brilliant" really doesn't apply in my case.)

BTW — since the topic is submodifiers — my grammar checker in Microsoft Word often flags these, with the suggestion of removing them. In many cases the sentence does read cleaner in their absence.
Saturday July 3rd 2010, 3:49 AM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
I think submodifiers can be just dandy when they serve the job of communicating to the desired audience, much in the same way "soi-disant" can be just dandy when the reader understands the so-called writer's use of a switch in language and as long as that switch is à propos to both the meaning and the audience. "N'est pas?"
Friday July 9th 2010, 10:04 PM
Comment by: Sonja H. (SYDNEY Australia)
Loved the article. Good understanding and observation of word usage. Sub-modifiers could also be a method for an age group to have their own language - groups do this all the time to create a sense of elitism for their members and this is not just confined to age groups; ever tried to understand what your tax accountant is talking about or scientists who dont speak the layman's language. Groups create words and methods of use as a means to shortcut their language. I remember one of my children calling me a "ho". I said that statement could be pleasing or hurtful - if I knew what a ho was! Get my drift.
Saturday July 10th 2010, 10:30 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sonja, or anyone! Is there a good meaning for 'ho'? Other than as in Westward, ho!
Saturday July 10th 2010, 2:01 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Apparently, "ho" can have a number of very different meanings, as can be seen on this site:
http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Ho
Saturday July 17th 2010, 10:45 PM
Comment by: Jen M. (Spicewood, TX)
I enjoy submodifiers; at least they don't bother me too much when I find myself and others using them -- even when I recognize their use as a crutch. Pushing an adjective or adverb right up to the hilt or asserting some moderation is a useful way of designating intensity when you are lazily writing and, of course, casually speaking. Sometimes it's a challenge coming up with the perfectly accurate, descriptive word while speaking. These extra-modifiers and intensifiers are comforting additions to our language.

We tend not to use them when writing, but why not, I wonder now? Because there exist much better robust words? Certainly. But can't you hear the inflection inside "so" and "way" and the clipped "rather?" Descriptive indeed!

Nice post; thanks.
Saturday August 7th 2010, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Robert V. (New York, NY)
Sub modifiers.

I enjoy your column. Ray S. earlier in this thread makes an interesting point about “wicked,” as in “wicked fast” wicked cool.”

In the summer of 1977, I worked as a camp counselor in central Maine. I was a Buckeye, born and breed, and a recent graduate of a university on Ohio. That summer, thrown together with other young men from around the country and Camp America counselors from Europe, a Minnesotan grabbed everyone’s ear with his submodifier “wicked.” I had never heard this expression before in my life. Soon, it fell easily from everyone’s lips.

Perhaps sub modifiers are the archaic remnants of any regional culture in the United States. The advent of cable television in the early 1980s tolled the death knell for regional culture. I pin it specifically on an MTV-driven youth culture.

Time was, when you lived in the Great Flyover of the Midwest, it took months, nay years, to discover what the hipwase on either coast had deemed cool. With MTV, even a farm boy in the most remote county of Iowa could be as goth as Marilyn Manson instantaneously.

Perhaps there is more than a linguistic function to sub modifiers. It may be that they place us geographically as much as they do chronologically.

Robert V.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 9:49 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
I had to read this article out loud multiple times because it was just so fun!!! GREAT ARTICLE!!! I love anything in Language Lounge, and this was definitely one of the high points!
Thursday December 27th 2012, 3:25 PM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom)
As I intended to say in 2010, an expression like "patently obvious" is not a use of a submodifier (a word my spell-checker dislikes and I am not inclined to argue). It is a simple tautology.
Saturday March 2nd 2013, 9:43 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
great article and comments.. I notice that there are two listings of this article in the righthand 'menu' at top of page...is this a common practice or simply an oops?

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An Ode to "Hella"
- 6 Comments
High school student Samantha Strimling sings the praises of the word "hella."
We talk to Michael Adams, author of "Slayer Slang" and "Slang: The People's Poetry."