“Oh, rather!”

Apr 23, 2012 by

The topic of differences between British and American English has already come up several times in this blog. These differences concern pronunciation (“tomejdo”-“tomahto”), word choice (truck vs. lorry), and even grammar (is the definite article needed in in the hospital?). Another case in point is the use of intensifying adverbs, such as pretty, rather, and quite.

Take, for example, pretty. If you hear someone say pretty sure, pretty good, pretty cool, or pretty darn close, they are most likely to be an American, or at least under the influence of American English. Another intensifying Americanism is mighty, which Brits do not use as an intensifier except when they’re trying to sound American. In fact, corpus data reveals many instances of mighty fine in British English, but they are nearly all examples of Brits’ poking fun at Americans. On the other hand, a Brit is more likely to use rather as in rather odd, rather strange, or rather silly. To an American ear, rather in front of an adjective sounds a bit formal and a bit British.

Other adverbs of this type may be used with a different meaning by British and American speakers. For example, “Thanks a bunch” is often used sincerely in American English, but ironically in British English. Another intensifying adverb that Americans and Brits do not quite agree is quite. The usage note in the Macmillan Dictionary puts it this way:

In British English quite usually means “fairly”:  The film was quite enjoyable, although some of the acting was weak. When American speakers say quite, they usually mean “very”: We’ve examined the figures quite thoroughly. Speakers of British English sometimes use quite to mean “very,” but only before words with an extreme meaning: The whole experience was quite amazing.

Still, Oh, quite! is often used by Americans in a light-hearted way poking fun of the Brits.



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