Q&A: An awful lot to write about

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we have an awful lot to write about…

Q: Hi AWC, so I was thinking about the past year and just happened to get thinking about the word “awful”…

A: What a strange coincidence.

Q: Wasn’t it though? And it is a rather curious word – usually used to describe something very bad or unpleasant. And yet, it has a few other meanings at odds with this. What gives?

A: We’re in a giving mood, so let’s take a closer look.

Q: Huzzah!

A: Did you really just say “Huzzah”?

Q: Um, yes I did.

A: Did you know that “huzzah” first appeared in writing in 1573 and probably evolved with sailors – from an older word meaning “to hoist”? In the past two decades it has enjoyed an odd resurgence, perhaps due to the rise of many “ye olde” colloquialisms.

Q: I did not know that.

A: But back to “awful”

Q: Yes please.

A: As you have rightly pointed out, “awful” can be a straightforward adjective most commonly meaning unpleasant. For example, “you have awful taste in wine” or “your manners are awful”.

Q: Harsh. Hope it wasn’t a first date.

A: Haha. And then you have a “fear inducing” role such as “the bear let out an awful roar”. The roar was quite good actually, but it invoked terror or fear.

Q: Okay.

A: Next, “awful” can emphasise something. For example, “I felt like an awful fool”. Usually it’s emphasising something unpleasant.

Q: So, has it ever meant “full of awe”? Because, well, duh.

A: Yes, English can be cruel. It did once mean precisely that – inspiring wonder or fear, e.g. “it was an awful view from the top”. But that usage has slipped into extinction – probably the closest it gets is with our bear’s roar. A shame, considering that’s clearly how the word was constructed.

Q: Yes it is a little unfortunate. Like deciding “underwear” would no longer describe things you wear under your clothes.

A: Superman is one step ahead of you there. But great example.

Q: That’s awful nice of you to say.

A: Aaaaaaand there it is – our adverb use. When you say “that’s awful nice” – you get an adverb (awful) describing an adjective (nice). It’s not formal, and resides mainly in American English usage, but it has become more and more common.

Q: An adverb? Shouldn’t we be using “awfully”?

A: Most do. So to say “that’s awfully nice of you” is preferred. But it’s important to know that using “awful” is also a thing. And it’s been around for an awful long time.

Q: My English teacher told me to avoid adverbs like the plague.

A: “The plague” is a noun.

Q: Hilarious. But you know what I mean, right?

A: Yes, and it’s nonsense. Sure, like any aspect of writing, you shouldn’t overdo them – “show don’t tell” in your writing and all that – but they are also there to be used.

Q: Fair enough. Finally, in “This year just feels awful” – is “awful” an adjective or an adverb?

A: Your verb of “feels” is a sense verb – so you’re really describing the year, hence it’s considered an adjective.

Q: Okay, so to recap. Everything is awful. But it’s allowed to be.

A: Yes, for now.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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