Season 2 Episode 6

Hello, this is Sean. Welcome to Season 2 Episode 6 of Ethos English, the go-to podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. Every week I help you build your vocabulary, refine your study strategies and improve your critical thinking. At you’ll find the show notes with extra resources including a text version of the episode with links to the resources I mention. By going to my site you’ll be able to sign up for my monthly newsletter to receive free study materials. Also, by following me on Instagram at EthosEnglishWithSean you’ll see my daily posts and can interact with me to practise using the vocabulary you’ve learned.

This season I’ve been focusing on the importance of learning to recognise distinct categories of vocabulary as a crucial skill for advanced English learners. As you know if you’ve listened before, I tend to refer not to vocabulary but to chunks. According to research roughly 50-80% of English consists of chunks, that is, groups of words that our brain processes and produces as a single unit of meaning. If you want to become a better language learner, and for that matter, a better language teacher, focusing on chunks is bound to yield results, that is, doing so will definitely produce results.

In episode 2 I talked about the book The Organised Mind, and how human beings have evolved to notice categories in their environment. In short, categorising is in our nature. So far we’ve learned about chunks containing so-called “empty” or delexicalised verbs like get/go/take/make/do/have/give/put/set. Because they’re ubiquitous, that is, they’re everywhere, we tend not to notice them, and more importantly perhaps, we tend not to notice that they usually are part of a larger chunk. I’ve also told you about binomials, which are chunks like by and large, back and forth, tried and trusted which are another very common category of English vocabulary.

This week I’m going to discuss adverbs and more specifically typical ways adverbs combine, or as we say in linguistics, collocate with, adjectives. A few years ago I attended a seminar by the applied linguist Dr. Anne O’Keefe. In her talk she explained that one of the key differences between intermediate and advanced English speakers is their use of adverbs. She showed us a graph of English learners from A2 through C2, that is from near beginner to proficient user, and there was a significant increase in adverb use as learners became more fluent in English.

Now, you might think that this means that to be more fluent you just have to use more adverbs like “very” and “really”. Not so fast! It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not just that advanced speakers of English use more adverbs, but that they use a wider variety of adverbs which we’re now going to explore.

If you recall, in episode 4 I talked about the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and how she’s a highly polarising figure. This is a good example of a common adverb + adjective collocation. While it wouldn’t be wrong to call someone a “very” polarising figure, polarising tends to collocate with “highly”. As a rule of thumb, that is a rule based on experience that applies in most but not all situations, it is best to avoid using “very” or “really” when another adverb is possible. Now, returning to the example of “highly”. A wide range of adjectives collocate with this adverb, such as successful, regarded, unlikely, effective, controversial and influential.

While it is true that most of these adjectives could be modified with the adverb “very”, some of them would sound unnatural or simply not make sense. For instance, it would sound fine to describe an issue as being very controversial rather than highly controversial, but whereas a highly regarded or well regarded person is someone with a good reputation, very regarded is not a recognised collocation and would probably confuse most English speakers.

Some linguists talk about words having their own behaviour, much like people. Just as people have their idiosyncrasies, that is their own eccentricities or unusual and unique ways of behaving, words and their collocations don’t follow any universal rules. The point of today’s episode is to highlight some key patterns, but you will only get the full benefit of this information if you get enough input, that is, read and listen widely. Then you will start noticing these patterns of adverb use and start using them in your own speaking and writing.

Notice how I just used another common adverb, namely “widely”, when I said that you ought to be reading widely. Someone who reads widely reads lots of different kinds of texts, or genres, as we call them. Some examples include newspapers, short stories, novels, biographies, long-form journalism, that is essays and articles, and so on. Someone who reads widely is said to be “well-read” or “widely-read” and these collocations are used to speak approvingly of someone who is knowledgeable thanks to the breadth of their reading.

Other adjectives that collocate with “widely” include spoken, accepted, available, considered, believed and regarded. Widely spoken is quite a useful adverb + adjective collocation for exam candidates and job interviews, as these situations often require you to explain your motivation for learning English. Rather than saying that English is spoken by a lot of people, you could say “I chose to improve my English because it’s a widely-spoken language.”

Another useful collocation is “widely available”, which means that something is available to a lot of people. For example, “Information is now widely available thanks to the internet.” And one final example with widely, is “widely regarded”. This is an interesting example because widely regarded and highly regarded have entirely different meanings. Whereas highly regarded means well respected, if someone or something is widely regarded as something it means that many people or even a majority of people consider them or it to be something, as in “Martin Luther King is widely regarded as one of the most important civil rights activists of the 20th century.” or as in “The internet is widely regarded as the most important technological innovation in recent memory.”

Two more incredibly useful adverbs are virtually and practically. These adverbs can be used interchangeably to mean almost. For instance, instead of saying “It is almost impossible to please everyone.” we would often say “It is virtually impossible to please everyone.” or “It is practically impossible to please everyone.” A very common collocation with virtually is virtually indistinguishable, in the sense of two things being almost the same, as in the following example. “I don’t understand why people are willing to pay a premium for iPhones, when it seems like competitors’ models are virtually indistinguishable.”

I’m going to mention one last adverb: awfully. Although awful means very bad, awfully is used, mostly in spoken English, as a synonym for very or extremely. It’s quite common to hear people say “I’m awfully sorry, but I’m running late today/I can’t make it to my appointment/etc…” whatever the excuse may be. What some learners find especially confusing is that awfully often collocates with positive adjectives like fond and nice. For example, you can say that someone is “awfully fond of classical music” meaning that they really like it. Likewise, if someone pays you a compliment and says something flattering about you you might respond by saying “that’s awfully nice of you to say”.

In preparing this week’s episode I’ve become increasingly aware – oh there’s another highly frequent adverb, increasingly – that I need to devote another episode to the use of adverbs. While todays’ episode is a solid introduction to adverb + adjective collocations, we still need to discuss adverb + verb collocations as well as what we call stance adverbs. Fortunately, we’re not in a rush and we can pick up where we left off next week. Oh, and if you’re wondering, this use of “fortunately” is an example of a stance adverb. Next week I’ll be talking about two fantastic websites for introducing more unusual and evocative adverbs into your writing and speaking so that you can produce expressive, dare I say poetic sentences like “the house was eerily quiet”.

Before I go over today’s vocabulary let me remind you – when in doubt it’s best to opt for adverbs other than “very” and “really” whenever possible.

Now let’s go over today’s vocabulary.

go-to: used to describe the best person, thing, or place for a particular purpose or need, EthosEnglish is the go-to podcast for students looking to improve their formal and academic English. It’s the best podcast for this purpose.

roughly: not exactly, synonyms – about, approximately

for that matter: used to say that what you are saying about one thing is also true about something else. Example: Ben never touched beer, or any kind of alcohol for that matter.

be bound to yield results: used to describe something which will definitely lead to results Example: Listening to EthosEnglish is bound to yield results when it comes to your fluency in English.
ubiquitous: formal – something which is everywhere. Example: Wifi hotspots are ubiquitous in
most airports and public spaces nowadays.

Not so fast! : spoken English – ​​used to tell someone not to be too eager to do or believe something. Example: Not so fast, guys. One win doesn’t make a championship season.

recall: remember a particular fact, event or situation from the past

As a rule of thumb: A rule of thumb is a rule or principle that you follow which is not based on exact calculations, but rather on experience or an educated guess. Example: As a rule of thumb, a cup of filter coffee contains about 80 mg of caffeine.

highly regarded or well regarded: Laura is highly regarded by her colleagues. In other words, they have a very good opinion of her.

idiosyncrasy: an unusual habit or way of behaving that someone has or an unusual or unexpected feature that something has. Example: My Spanish speaking students struggle with the many idiosyncrasies of English spelling.

read widely: read from a variety of different books, articles, etc., often from different genres, disciplines or authors. Example. “His tutor encouraged him to read widely in philosophy.
be well-read or widely-read: someone who is well-read has read many books and knows a lot about different subjects

be widely spoken: a language is widely spoken when many people speak it in a place. Example: French used to be widely spoken in Cambodia.

be widely available: used to describe something which can be found easily. Example: Nowadays organic food is widely available in most supermarkets.

be widely regarded as: be considered by many or most people as. Example: Margaret Atwood is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best living writers.

virtually impossible: almost impossible Example: “It’s virtually impossible to please everyone.”

virtually indistinguishable: almost the same. Example: He tasted the cheaper wine and found it
virtually indistinguishable from a superior one.

Likewise: formal, in the same way. The clams were delicious. Likewise, the eggplant was excellent.

be eerily quiet: be quiet in a strange and frightening way

when in doubt: used when advising someone what to do if they are uncertain about something

opt for something: choose one thing or do one thing instead of another. Example: Mike opted for early retirement. In other words, he chose to retire early.

Thanks for listening. Remember if you want daily content follow me on Instagram. My account is EthosEnglishWithSean. And don’t hesitate to DM me or send me an email to I love hearing from my listeners and would love your feedback. Even just a short message telling me where you’re from and what your motivations are for learning or teaching English are greatly appreciated.

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