Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: awful; awfully.

awful; awfully. The word awful has undergone several transformations. Originally, it meant “inspiring or filled with aw.” Its meaning then degenerated to “horrible, terrible” [what an awful accident]. And awfully, meanwhile, became an equivalent of very but with greater intensity [Joe was awfully sorry about the mix-up]. Nobody objects to these uses in speech, and few would in writing. But some begin to object when awfully intensifies adjectives with positive connotations [they’re awfully good people] [Tiger played awfully well]. Although these uses have been called humorously illogical, they’re actually quite close to the original sense. Occasionally, of course, awfully can actually be ambiguous–e.g.: “He is awfully educated.” But in sentences in which that ambiguity doesn’t appear, the intensive awfully must be accepted as standard. To use awful adverbially typifies dialectal usage–e.g.: “He’s an awful [read awfully] good fellow.” For information on Language-Change Index click here.

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