Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-gq7q9 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-20T17:10:35.206Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

From ‘quickly’ to ‘fairly’: on the history of rather1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2008

Department of English, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 24 (Unioninkatu 40), 00014 University of Helsinki,


In this article I describe the semantic and syntactic development of the moderator rather from Old to Present-day English using a variationist approach. Rather originates in an Old English comparative adverb indicating speed, and hence time, but the loss of the indication of speed and movement can already be traced in the Old English period. In Middle English the ‘preferential’ senses of rather (e.g. the type ‘I would rather do X than Y’) become more common than the temporal senses. This contrastive meaning constitutes the unmarked use of rather in Early Modern English, but it gradually weakens in the course of the Modern English period. The moderator use becomes popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. The semantic development outlined above goes hand in hand with a syntactic development from an original adjunct into a subjunct and conjunct, and finally into a modifier of adjectives and adverbs.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Biber, Douglas & Finegan, Edward. 1997. Diachronic relations among speech-based and written registers in English. In Nevalainen, Terttu & Kahlas-Tarkka, Leena (eds.), To explain the present: Studies in the changing English language in honour of Matti Rissanen, 253–75. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.Google Scholar
BT = Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
BTS = Toller T. Northcote. 1921. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary: Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Claridge, Claudia. 2007. The superlative in spoken English. In Facchinetti, Roberta (ed.), Corpus linguistics twenty-five years on. Selected papers from the Twenty-fifth International Conference on English Language Research on Computerised Corpora, 121–48. Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar
Diehl, Hannele. 2005. Quite as a degree modifier of verbs. Nordic Journal of English Studies 4 (1), 1134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hopper, Paul J. & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2003. Grammaticalization, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kytö, Merja (comp.). 1996. Manual to the diachronic part of the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts: Coding conventions and lists of source texts, 3rd edn. Helsinki: Department of English, University of Helsinki.Google Scholar
MED = Kurath, Hans, Kuhn, Sherman M. et al. (eds.). 1952–2001. Middle English dictionary. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
Méndez-Naya, Belén. 2006. Adjunct, modifier, discourse marker: On the various functions of right in the history of English. Folia Linguistica Historica 27, 141–69.Google Scholar
Nevalainen, Terttu. 2004. Three perspectives on grammaticalization: Lexico-grammar, corpora and historical sociolinguistics. In Lindquist, Hans & Mair, Christian (eds.), Corpus approaches to grammaticalization in English (Studies in Corpus Linguistics 13), 131. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Nevalainen, Terttu & Rissanen, Matti. 2002. Fairly pretty or pretty fair? On the development and grammaticalization of English downtoners. Language Sciences 24, 359–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
OED = Oxford English dictionary, 2nd edn. 1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Online version with revisions: www.oed.comGoogle Scholar
Paradis, Carita. 1997. Degree modifiers of adjectives in spoken British English (Lund Studies in English 92). Lund: Lund University Press.Google Scholar
Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey & Svartvik, Jan. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.Google Scholar
Rissanen, Matti. 1999. On the adverbialization of RATHER: Surfing for historical data. In Hasselgård, Hilde & Oksefjell, Signe (eds.), Out of corpora: Studies in honour of Stig Johansson (Language and Computers 26), 4959. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi.Google Scholar
Traugott, Elizabeth Closs & Dasher, Richard B.. 2002. Regularity in semantic change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar