Friday, March 24, 2017

Those of us who use "pretty" as an adverb are in pretty good company

As well as being an adjective (a pretty girl, pretty flowers) etc, pretty can be an adverb
  • modifying an adjective:
    • She's pretty intelligent for her age.
    • I'm pretty sure the film starts at 8.
  • modifying an adverb:
    • The meeting went pretty smoothly, all things considered.
    • They've pretty obviously left.
  • in expressions with much, nearly and well
    • That's pretty much all I've got to say.
    • The dog's eaten pretty well all our sandwiches!
    • Don't worry, we're pretty nearly there.
  • and in a couple of idioms:
    • Which do you think is better? - I don't know, they're pretty much of a muchness.
    • With a string of hits in recent years, for the moment the band are sitting pretty.
Its meanings include: almost, rather, somewhat, more or less. In his landmark dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson refers to it as "less than very", although the difference is sometimes pretty small.
Most sources suggest that its use is rather informal, but I was somewhat surprised when one of my younger students told me that his school English teacher had banned it in the classroom - 'It's alright among your friends, but not here.'
Like really, pretty is often more expressive than the rather bland very, but apparently some people find it too colloquial. There are others, however, who take a rather broader view:
The qualifying adverb pretty, meaning “fairly or moderately” has been in general use since the late 16th century. Although most common in informal speech and writing, it is far from restricted to them, and often is less stilted than alternatives such as relatively, moderately, and quite.

Random House Abridged - at

What I'm interested here is not so much the arguments for or against the adverb pretty, but whether those usually regarded as the greatest British writers shared the disdain apparently felt by some. And the answer seems to be a resounding 'No!'. It appears in the writings of many of the greatest writers of the English language, across four centuries, and although many examples appear in spoken dialogues, we also find it being used in the main narrative, or by the narrator. And its use is not restricted to novels, being used by both Darwin and Ruskin, in what have become classics of non-fiction.
Can something that's good enough for the likes of Shakespeare, Defoe and Austen, really be so harmful in a secondary school classroom?

Seventeenth century

  • William Shakespeare - As You Like It 3:5 - First Folio 1623
  • Tis pretty sure, and very probable,
    That eyes that are the frailst, and softest things
  • John Dryden - Marriage-á-la-Mode 1673
  • But here comes Rhodophil. It is pretty odd that my mistress should so much resemble his
  • Tis a pretty odd kind of game this, where each of us plays for double stakes
  • John Bunyan - The Pilgrim's Progress 1678
  • You are pretty near the business, for the bottom of all is for want of a change in their mind and will

Eighteenth century

  • Daniel Defoe - Robinson Crusoe 1719
  • It was my lot first of all to fall into pretty good company in London
  • for the wind began to blow pretty fresh in the morning
  • Friday began to talk pretty well, and understand the names of almost everything I had occasion to call for
  • Daniel Defoe - Moll Flanders 1722
  • I had pretty good luck thus far, and I made several adventures more
  • It was after those adventures in Ireland, and when she was pretty well known in that country, that she left Dublin and came over to England
  • However, during this interval I confined myself pretty much at home
  • Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels 1726
  • I paced the diameter and circumference several times barefoot, and, computing by the scale, measured it pretty exactly.
  • after which we had fair weather, but still with a pretty strong gale from the west
  • I passed the night under the shelter of a rock, strewing some heath under me, and slept pretty well.
  • Samuel Richardson - Pamela 1740
  • why, all this too I have got pretty tolerably at my finger's end, as they say;
  • I have, sir, ... followed pretty much the form you have prescribed for me, in the letter to Mrs. Jervis;
  • I had hardly time to transcribe these letters, though, writing so much, I write pretty fast,
  • Henry Fielding - Tom Jones 1749
  • Mrs Partridge was pretty well satisfied that she had condemned her husband without cause
  • which somewhat qualified her hatred towards him; though of this likewise she had a pretty moderate share
  • for the water was luckily pretty shallow in that part
  • Laurence Sterne - Tristram Shandy 1759-67
  • observing such an equal tenor in the distribution of her favours, as to bring them, in those points, pretty near to a level with each other;
  • so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.
  • one may safely suppose he meant pretty near the same thing.
  • Laurence Sterne - A Sentimental Journey 1768
  • so that being pretty much unprepossessed, there must have been grounds for what struck me the moment I cast my eyes over the parterre
  • I had wrote myself pretty well out of conceit with the désobligeant,
  • Oliver Goldsmith - The Vicar of Wakefield 1766
  • it seemed to me pretty plain, that they had more of love than matrimony in them
  • but as I was pretty much unacquainted with the present state of the stage, I demanded who were the present theatrical writers in vogue
  • His time is pretty much taken up in keeping his relation, who is a little melancholy, in spirits
  • Tobias Smollett - Humphry Clinker 1771
  • The Square, though irregular, is, on the whole, pretty well laid out, spacious, open, and airy
  • but Humphry himself was by this time pretty well rid of all apprehensions of being hanged;
  • but not satisfied with this booty, which was pretty considerable, the rascal insisted upon rifling her of her ear-rings and necklace
  • Boswell's Life of Johnson 1791
  • He was a pretty good Latin scholar, and a citizen so creditable as to be made one of the magistrates of Lichfield;
  • Johnson used to be a pretty frequent visitor at the house of Mr. Richardson, authour of Clarissa
  • His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge.

Nineteenth Century

Jane Austen

  • Sense and Sensibility 1811
  • "Well, Marianne," said Elinor, as soon as he had left them, "for ONE morning I think you have done pretty well.
  • "Edward's love for me," said Lucy, "has been pretty well put to the test
  • But now there is one good thing, we shall be able to meet, and meet pretty often (Lucy)
  • Pride and Prejudice 1813
  • I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same (Bingley)
  • As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnestly; and the manner in which he immediately asked her why she supposed Miss Darcy likely to give them any uneasiness, convinced her that she had somehow or other got pretty near the truth (narrator)
  • There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. (Elizabeth)
  • Having been frequently in company with him since her return, agitation was pretty well over. (narrator)
  • "I say no more than the truth, and everybody will say that knows him," replied the other. Elizabeth thought this was going pretty far; (narrator)
  • You know pretty well, I suppose, what has been done for the young people. (Elizabeth's aunt, Mrs.Gardiner)
  • And though he exclaimed at the term, she found that it had been pretty much the case. (narrator)

Charles Dickens

  • David Copperfield 1850
  • no great impression was made by it, as they were pretty sure of getting into trouble tomorrow (narrator)
  • 'It was pretty far in the night,' said Peggotty, 'when she asked me for some drink;
  • The days passed pretty much as they had passed before (narrator)
  • Hard Times 1854
  • I doubt if you ever will see him now. It’s pretty plain to me, he’s off. (Mr Childers)
  • Still, although they differed in every other particular, conceivable and inconceivable (especially inconceivable), they were pretty well united on the point that these unlucky infants were never to wonder. (narrator)
  • He then walked home pretty easily (narrator)
  • Great Expectations 1861
  • The soldiers were in front of us, extending into a pretty wide line with an interval between man and man (narrator)
  • "How did you get on up town?" I answered, "Pretty well, sir," and my sister shook her fist at me. (narrator)
  • "My name," he said, "is Jaggers, and I am a lawyer in London. I am pretty well known."

The Brontë sisters

  • Charlotte Brontë - Shirley 1849
  • but I received letters this morning which showed me pretty clearly where I stand (Mr Moore)
  • and if you were a married man, and had a family, like me, I should think your case pretty nigh desperate; (Mr Yorke)
  • she took a sufficiently grave view of the future, and fancied she knew pretty well how her own destiny and that of some others were tending. (narrator)
  • Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights 1847
  • Heathcliff bore his degradation pretty well at first, because Cathy taught him what she learnt (narrator)
  • I don’t engage to let Hareton go undisputed; but I’ll be pretty sure to make the other come!
  • Is he pretty lively with Miss Linton generally? (Edgar Linton)
  • Anne Brontë - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 1848
  • and what little effort I made, was apparently pretty successful (narrator)
  • and whose son Robert was at that moment helping himself to a pretty stiff glass of the same. (narrator)
  • With a single set of quadrilles, and several country dances, we carried it on to a pretty late hour; (narrator)

Other nineteenth century writers

  • William Makepiece Thackeray - Vanity Fair 1848
  • All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. (narrator)
  • Presently the baronet plunged a fork into the saucepan on the fire, and withdrew from the pot a piece of tripe and an onion, which he divided into pretty equal portions (narrator)
  • With the young people, whose applause she thoroughly gained, her method was pretty simple (narrator)
  • Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South 1855
  • He liked and disliked pretty nearly the same things that she did. (narrator)
  • I have great faith in the power of will. I think myself I have succeeded pretty well in yours. (Mr Lennox)
  • I dare say, I was even considered a pretty fair classic in those days, though my Latin and Greek have slipt away from me since. (Mr Thornton)
  • George Eliot - Middlemarch 1871-2
  • but at this moment she was seeking the highest aid possible that she might not dread the corrosiveness of Celia's pretty carnally minded prose (narrator)
  • He is pretty certain to be a bishop, is Casaubon (Mr Brooke)
  • It's pretty good authority, I think—a man who knows most of what goes on in Middlemarch (Mr. Featherstone)
  • Charles Darwin - The Voyage of the Beagle 1839
  • These houses are often large, and are built of thick upright posts, with boughs interwoven, and afterwards plastered. They seldom have floors, and never glazed windows; but are generally pretty well roofed.
  • They were fed only once a week, but they appeared in pretty good health.
  • The valley was pretty well sheltered from the cold wind, but there was very little brushwood for fuel.
  • Charles Darwin - The Origin of the Species 1859
  • It seems pretty clear that organic beings must be exposed during several generations to the new conditions of life to cause any appreciable amount of variation; and that when the organisation has once begun to vary, it generally continues to vary for many generations.
  • I may just mention that carnivorous animals, even from the tropics, breed in this country pretty freely under confinement
  • When a race of plants is once pretty well established, the seed-raisers do not pick out the best plants, but ...
  • John Ruskin - The Stones of Venice 1851-3
  • His third tier, if not his second, will probably appear a sufficiently secure foundation for finer work; for if the earth yield at all, it will probably yield pretty equally under the great mass of masonry now knit together over it.
  • We may be pretty sure that the building is a good one; none but a master of his craft would have ventured to do this.
  • The picture is dark and spoiled, but I am pretty sure there are no demons or spectres in it.

Early twentieth century

  • Somerset Maugham - Of Human Bondage 1915
  • If you go on as you are now you'll find yourself head of the school one of these days, and you ought to be pretty safe for a scholarship when you leave (headmaster)
  • Did he tell you so? In America we should call him a pretty fair specimen of a waster (Weeks)
  • It sounds a pretty low-down thing to do. (Philip)
  • James Joyce - Ulysses 1918-20
  • You would imagine that would get played out pretty quick
  • and anybody that conjectured the contrary would have found themselves pretty speedily in the wrong shop.
  • the perverted transcendentalism to which Mr S. Dedalus' (Div. Scep.) contentions would appear to prove him pretty badly addicted runs directly counter to accepted scientific methods
  • DH Lawrence - Sons and Lovers 1913
  • Her name changes pretty frequently, as a rule (Skrebensky)
  • Yes, they are pretty bad. The pits are very deep, and hot, and in some places wet (Tom Brangwen)
  • they'll get you down if you don't tackle 'em pretty quick (Mr Brunt)

Grammar Books etc

  • Ambrose Pierce - Write it Right
  • Condemnation of the split infinitive is now pretty general, but it is only recently that any one seems to have thought of it.
  • It would be pretty hard on a foreigner skilled in the English tongue if he could not venture to ...
  • The word wed in all its forms as a substitute for marry, is pretty hard to bear.
  • The Grammar of English Grammars, Samuel U Berrian
  • It is hardly to be supposed that any person can have a very clear conviction of the best method of doing a thing, who shall not at first have acquired a pretty correct and adequate notion of the thing to be done.
  • But though the terms long and short, as applied to vowels, are pretty generally understood, (Walker)
  • In the preceding chapters, the essential principles of English syntax are supposed to be pretty fully developed;
  • An English Grammat, WM Baskerville and JW Sewell, 1895
  • Pretty has a wider adverbial use than it gets credit for.
    • I believe our astonishment is pretty equal.—Fielding.
    • Hard blows and hard money, the feel of both of which you know pretty well by now.—Kingsley.
    • The first of these generals is pretty generally recognized as the greatest military genius that ever lived.—Bayne.
    • A pretty large experience.—Thackeray.
  • Pretty is also used by Prescott, Franklin, De Quincey, Defoe, Dickens, Kingsley, Burke, Emerson, Aldrich, Holmes, and other writers.
  • 24. It was pretty bad after that, and but for Polly's outdoor exercise, she would undoubtedly have succumbed.



Areti Gavalaki said...

So good to see you are back, Will! I've been concerned about your long absence. Hope everything is fine with you.

John Cowan said...

When writing a piece for the New Yorker, James Thurber once described a certain building as "pretty ugly and a little big for its site", purely to piss off the editor, Harold Ross, who was well-known for pouncing on all inconsistencies real or imaginary.

somdara said...

So good to see you are back,:D


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