Season 2 Episode 7

Hello, this is Sean. Welcome to Season 2 Episode 7 of Ethos English, the go-to podcast for advanced English learners and the people who teach them. Over the past week I’ve been mulling over adverbs. How can I convey to my audience the full expressive power of a carefully chosen adverb? There we go, carefully chosen, that’s an adverb + adjective collocation. We’re off to a good start. As I said last week, the most important thing that you can learn from me is simply that adverbs are worth paying attention to. I’ve talked about the concept of attentional filter before. Think of it as a camera lens that allows you to focus on certain things in your environment while blurring out everything else.

Now when you read or hear English my guess is you’ll start being more sensitive to how we use adverbs in English. I was recently reading an article from the Times Literary Supplement on the Austrian-American economist Friedrich von Hayek and I was struck by the prominence of adverbs in the opening paragraph. I’m going to read it you:

“Friedrich von Hayek was one of the twentieth century’s most influential writers on economics and social and political theory. He was widely respected by those who knew him personally – even when, like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman, they profoundly disagreed with him intellectually – and more recently has been even more ubiquitously condemned as a malign influence, the creator of neoliberalism (a term he didn’t much care for) and the slayer of the welfare state.” 

Let me highlight a few, though not all, of the adverb collocations from this paragraph.
be widely respected
know someone personally
profoundly disagree with someone
be ubiquitously condemned

What’s interesting in this short excerpt is that we have a range of adverbs. Last week I discussed a few key adverbs that collocate with a wide range of adjectives like highly and widely. Here we have an example of such a collocation: be widely respected, that is, be respected by a lot of people. And then we have less common adverbs like profoundly and ubiquitously. Profoundly is much less common than widely, and ubiquitously is quite unusual. As I mentioned last week, ubiquitous is a formal word to describe something which is everywhere. It comes from the Latin words ubi where and ubique everywhere. Someone who is ubiquitously condemned is condemned, that is, severely criticised, everywhere, or by everyone.

I’m going to give you a few more examples of these more unusual adverb collocations. I was reading an article from the Financial Times entitled Crypto’s future may be divided not dead, in which the author Gillian Tett explores the recent collapse of the cryptocurrency brokerage FTX. She writes the following: “The FTX implosion has revealed that the sector has at least two big Achilles heels. One is that it is fiendishly difficult to know what assets underpin digital tokens […], since balance sheets are often opaque.”

If something is fiendishly difficult it is extremely difficult. Fiendishly comes from the word fiend, which is a very cruel, evil or violent person according to the Longman online dictionary. In this example we could easily substitute extremely for fiendishly and say that it is extremely difficult to know assets underpin digital tokens, but we would lose a certain expressiveness that fiendishly provides.

As I said in last week’s episode, my tips are not a substitute for reading widely. I do provide prime examples of adverb collocations, but my main goal is not to teach you these few examples but encourage you to go out and read and notice and learn other examples.

I’m going to share one more very typical adverb + verb collocation that I came across as I was reading the novel My year of rest and relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. At one point one of the character says something “matter-of-factly” to one of the other characters. If you say something matter-of-factly to someone you say it in a way that shows no emotion, especially when you would expect that person to be expressing emotion. In other words, it’s used to describe someone who is emotionally detached from a situation in a way that might be unfeeling or even cruel.

Here are some examples from the Cambridge online dictionary:

She announced their divorce matter-of-factly.
He talked matter-of-factly about coping with Lisa’s chronic illness.
The murderer confessed matter-of-factly to the detectives.

Unlike last week’s examples of collocations with highly, widely, virtually, practically and awfully, which all collocate, remember that just means combine with, a wide range of adjectives, there are other adverbs that collocate with very few or sometimes only one adjective. For instance, as far as I know fiendishly only collocates with difficult. Does that mean it’s not worth learning? Nothing could be further from the truth! Knowing some of these rarer, yet highly typical collocations, is what distinguishes a C1 from a C2 English learner. If you want to get top marks in IELTS Academic or Cambridge Proficiency, awareness of this type of adverb collocation is vital.

The examples that I’ve given today have all been taken from texts I read over the last week: a book review in the Times Literary Supplement, an article from the Financial Times and the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I mention my reading because reading is the royal road to vocabulary development. In other words, reading is the most direct way of achieving your goal of improving your vocabulary.

Now, what if you’re writing a text and want to improve your use of adverbs? There are two websites which are incredibly useful. The first one is Ozdic and the second is Sketch Engine. You simply type in your keyword and you can find typical collocations for it. Last year I created a tutorial for Ozdic, which is linked in the show notes and can be found on my Youtube channel EthosEnglish. I will be creating a similar tutorial on Ozdic in the coming weeks, so I would recommend subscribing to me on Youtube so that you’re notified when it’s made available.
What these tools allow you to do is to identify adverbs that would be appropriate for your context and that you would otherwise never think of using. For example, if you search for collocations for the verb “disagree” on Sketch Engine by clicking on the “word sketch” option and then look under “modifiers” you’ll see all the different adverbs which tend to collocate with this verb. Some examples include respectfully, politely, vehemently and strenuously. What’s particularly helpful with Sketch Engine is that you can click on these results and see concordances, that is sentences containing each collocation, so that you can ensure that it is indeed suitable for the context in which you want to use it.

Like I said, I will be releasing a Sketch Engine tutorial on my Youtube channel in the coming weeks.

mull something over: think about a problem, plan, etc. for a long time before making a decision

convey something: formal, communicate or express something

be struck by something: If you are struck by something you suddenly think about something
“When I met her I was immediately struck by her cutting sense of humour.”

profoundly disagree with someone: completely disagree with someone

an excerpt: ​​a short piece taken from a book, poem, piece of music, etc

be fiendishly difficult: be extremely difficult

a prime example: a very typical example, as in “Boris Jonson is a prime example of an incompetent leader.”

say or announce something matter-of-factly: say something without emotion, especially when you would expect an emotional reaction

the royal road to something: the best or most direct way of achieving a desired goal, as in the example “The royal road to success is persistence.”

Remember, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to the show notes available at to receive a monthly Quizlet study set of that month’s vocabulary. What’s more, I post daily content on my Instagram account EthosEnglishWithSean.

Thanks for listening!

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