A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
The Submodified World
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.