Saturday, 11 July 2009

On being typical(ly)

A correspondent writes from Germany to say that he is often corrected for saying typical German (for typisch Deutsch). He has been advised to say a typical German or typically German, but he feels that his version is all right. What do I think?

The use of the article isn't relevant here, as that depends on whether the noun is countable or not.

That's a typical English tree
That's a typically English tree.

That's typical English weather.
That's typically English weather.

These examples display a very slight difference in meaning: typical means simply 'characteristic of', whereas the adverbial force of typically highlights the way of behaving. (The difference is more marked with some other pairs, such as basic/basically, happy/happily.)

There's no usage issue here. An issue arises only when English (or other such nouns) is made the head of the noun phrase. Normally we wouldn't find two adjectives in predicative position without modification. If we start with That's tasty home-made cake, we wouldn't normally say (in a single intonation contour) That's tasty home-made, but something like That's tasty and home-made.

But this has happened with the type of example which motivated this post, where we find both:

That's typically English.
That's typical English.

Typical has taken on an adverbial role, and this is what makes some people uncomfortable. They like adjectives to stay adjectives, so they object when people say It's looking good, Drive slow, and suchlike. It's part of the prescriptive tradition in English.

But the fact is that both constructions are common. The present-day usage has probably been reinforced by frequency. Constructions such as typical English/German are actually three times as common as those with typically, as a quick Google search will confirm.

So we now have a pair of sentences which mean the same thing. And when this happens, a stylistic difference is bound to emerge. Typical is more informal than typically. I can imagine a curator in an art gallery stopping in front of a picture and saying That's typically Dutch - less likely, That's typical Dutch. But I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear the latter from a group of people chatting about the picture.

We can get a stronger sense of the informality if we change the example. That's typically Rembrandt is the sort of thing one would say about a picture. That's typical Rembrandt might be heard after someone told a story about his naughty behaviour. So I think my German correspondent needs to look to the context before deciding whether to say or write typical German or not.

8 comments:

The Ridger, FCD said...

Typical has taken on an adverbial role, and this is what makes some people uncomfortable.

Since "English" can be used as a nominal (noun), isn't it just as likely that "typical" is indeed an adjective?

Yvonne said...

In your example (That's typically English vs That's typical English) I would tend to read and use these as meaning two different things. The first as "that's typical of the English national character", the second as "that's typical or idiomatic of English as a language".

DC said...

That's a possible analysis, indeed, but if people took it as an adjective + noun there wouldn't be a usage problem. The discomfort still has to be explained.

maggie_wc said...

that's one among many problems that people learn Eng. as a foreign language face. my teacher always says: if in doubt, google it!

Yousef B. Al-Bader said...

Analogically speaking, consider the following examples:

1- That's really nice. (BrE)

2- That's real nice. (AmE)

and what about the expression:

"Good night, sleep tight"

Shouldn't "tight" be changed to "tightly"?

DC said...

But beware, because the status of a page on Google, or a contribution to a forum, is often unclear, eg whether produced by a native or non-native speaker.

DC said...

To Yousef: no, because it's a formulaic expression, and formulae have a grammar of their own.

John said...

To me, the difference between 'typical' and 'typically' centres around the emphasis on contrast. 'A typically English house' would seem to go with phrase stress on 'English' and imply something uniquely English, not to be found in other cultures, whereas 'a typical English house' simply makes a descriptive statement with no distinctive phrase stress and no implied contrast with any other culture.