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I have recently noticed a phenomenon in English that seems quite common. The phenomenon is regarding the usage of certain adverbs:

  • Practically should mean in a practical manner. But it is often used to mean almost or mostly: e.g. "She was practically fainting from lack of air."

  • Essentially should mean in essence or in an essential manner. But it is also often used to mean almost or mostly: e.g. "I am essentially done with my courses this semester"; "He was essentially an adult although he was technically a child."

  • Reasonably should mean in a reasonable manner but it is used to mean quite or somewhat: e.g. "The food was reasonably good", or "She remained reasonably calm despite her fear."

  • Ridiculously should mean in a ridiculous way but it is often used to mean extremely or overly.

  • Basically should mean in a basic or fundamental sense but it is often used to mean almost or mostly.

There does seem to be some sense to this. For instance, when I say "I am essentially done with my courses this semester", what I might mean is that in essence I am done. But in casual use, I don't think most people think of it this way. If I say "I'm essentially finished eating" I don't mean to suggest that I am finished in some essential way, or that I have some essential property as if I were finished. Rather, I mean "I'm almost finished eating." Similarly, "She remained reasonably calm" suggests that she was quite calm, not necessarily that her calmness was reasonable or rational. If I wanted to say that her calmness was rational, I would have said "she remained rational and stayed calm".

My questions are:

  1. Does this phenomenon have a name? There seem to be a lot of adverbs that are used in this way.

  2. Is this usage correct, or should one only use adverbs like practically, reasonably, basically when they can actually be substituted with practically speaking, in a reasonable way, and in a basic manner?

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    I totally get your confusion. This is basically informal speech, and it's literally impossible to prevent. Some of your uses, though, are way less idiomatic than others. Is it correct? Absolutely! Does it have a name? I dunno. Hyperbole? Slang? Butchering of the language? Maybe someone knows a better answer. – anongoodnurse Dec 26 '14 at 20:58
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    I think your basic assumptions may be wrong. practically as used here means for all practical purposes. essentially means at it's essence and basically means at it's base which makes it practically the same as essentially. – Jim Dec 26 '14 at 22:09
  • @Jim I see what you are saying, and I tried to address that in my paragraph beginning "There does seem...". I don't have any issue with these phrases when they are used in the way you say, but I believe in practice many people forget that "practically" is short for "for all practical purposes" and simply use it to mean "almost" or "mostly". I'm asking if there is a name for that sort of usage, and if it is correct. – 6005 Dec 26 '14 at 23:03
  • Perhaps you're thinking of hyperbole? – Jim Dec 27 '14 at 0:12
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    Some of these are metaphoric. ridiculously means extremely because excess is often ridiculous. – Barmar Dec 27 '14 at 0:24
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In each of the example sentences of the OP, someone chose a word that approximated a more complex thought, and presented the language in a sentence. Then someone reads the word, and chooses an interpretation of the speaker's thought. In some examples, the OP interpretation may be closer than others. Only the original writer could confirm the actual meaning, but allow me to suggest a possible meaning for each adverb that shows how the usage was

essentially,

basically,

reasonably and

practically correct:


The original adverb choice builds on a root meaning. It replaces the complex thought, answering an adverbial query:

"She was practically fainting from lack of air."

  • Choice:"Practically from practice;
  • Meaning:"In practice" with reference to What was the practice of her fainting?
  • Thought: She was fainting "in every practice except loosing consciousness"..."
  • Interpretation: She almost fainted; if she had fainted, we would have left out practically.

"He was essentially an adult, although he was technically a child."

  • Choice: Essentially from essential
  • Meaning: "In essence" with reference to What is essential to being an adult?
  • Thought: He was "delaying gratification", although he was technically a child.
  • Interpretation: He is almost an adult; if he were 18, we might have used actually.

"She remained reasonably calm despite her fear."

  • Choice: Reasonably from reasonable
  • Meaning: "within ability to reason" with reference to What calm remains within the ability to reason in spite of her fear?
  • Thought: She remained calm "within my ability to reason" despite her fear.
  • Interpretation: She remained quite calm, with quite meaning to a certain extent. ODO

"The price was ridiculously cheap"

  • Choice: Ridiculously from ridiculous
  • Meaning: "to a ridiculous extent" with reference to What is ridiculous about a cheap price?
  • Thought: The cheap prices was "ridiculously extreme".
  • Interpretation: The price is extremely cheap.

He basically totaled his car in the accident.

  • Choice: Basically from basic
  • Meaning: "at the base" with reference to What is basic about totaling a car?
  • Thought: He "totally ruined most of the important parts" of his car in the accident.
  • Interpretation: The car is mostly totaled, an idiomatic use of total. ODO vt.2

approximate interpretation is the name of this phenomenon:

approximate ODO

ADJECTIVE

Close to the actual, but not completely accurate or exact:

interpretation WNWD (1960)

  1. explanation; meaning; translation; exposition

The writer approximates the meaning in his mind by using a word. Understanding that there would be many appropriate adverbial queries, the reader interprets an approximate meaning from the usage. Approximate interpretation is the reason our conversations can be so interesting--even intense.

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  1. Yes, there's a term for it. It's called Semantic Bleaching.

  2. These adverbs are correct in that they are grammatical and no native speaker would find them unusual, unnatural, or hard to understand. As for it being good style, there's nothing elegant about phrases like "in a basic manner. In general, using more semantically dense verbs makes clunky adverbs or adverbial phrases unnecessary. "The food was good in a reasonable way" is awful, "The food was reasonably good" is fine but casual and squishy, and "The food sufficed" is lovely.

0

The wording of your question suggests that manner adverbs are somehow more normal or central than other sorts of adverb. I see no reason to think that is true. There are at least three theories about the syntactic types of adverbs:

  • containing constituent (see Thomason & Stalnaker and also Zeno Vendler), where manner adverbs are taken to be within verb phrases
  • modified constituent (see McCawley, chapter 19), where manner adverbs are taken to modify verb phrases
  • grammatical relation (see me), where manner adverbs are taken to have the same grammatical relation as direct objects

In all three theories, there are other types of adverbs as well, and manner adverbs do not have a special privileged status. Also, in all three, the same -ly word can sometimes have several different interpretations, depending on the type of adverb it is.

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