What Is an Intensifier?

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An intensifier is a word that strengthens or weakens another word (usually the word immediately to its right). An intensifier has no real meaning by itself and can usually be removed from the sentence. Intensifiers are adverbs.

The most common intensifiers are "very," "extremely," and "incredibly." The sole purpose of an intensifier is to tell us about the intensity of another word.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Intensifiers in Sentences
  • Negative-sounding Intensifiers Provide Strength
  • Real-Life Examples of Intensifiers
  • Why Intensifiers Are Important
  • Test Time!
intensifier in grammar

Examples of Intensifiers in Sentences

Here are some examples of intensifiers (shaded) in sentences:
  • This pie is tasty.
  • (There is no intensifier in this sentence.)
  • This pie is very tasty.
  • (In this example, the intensifier "very" strengthens the adjective "tasty." Of note, "very" is the most common intensifier in English.)
  • The delegation is late.
  • (There is no intensifier in this sentence.)
  • The delegation is very late.
  • Last week's test was easy.
  • (There is no intensifier in this sentence.)
  • Last week's test was really easy.
  • Last week's test was incredibly easy.
  • Last week's test was insanely easy.

Negative-sounding Intensifiers Provide Strength

Oddly, negative-sounding words such as "awfully," "dreadfully," "insanely," and "terribly" provide strength to the words they modify. For example:
  • You look awfully pale.
  • I am dreadfully sorry.
  • That is an insanely clever plan.
  • The pressure is dropping terribly quickly.

Real-Life Examples of Intensifiers

  • You can only enjoy life when you're extremely busy. (Actress Josephine de La Baume)
  • Nothing to me feels as good as laughing incredibly hard. (Actor Steve Carell)
  • In Jaws, they used their state-of-the-art animatronic shark very sparingly because it kept breaking down, but it was why the film was so good. It was all suggested. (Actor Tom Ellis)
  • (Intensifiers tend to modify adjectives, but they can modify adverbs too.)
Intensifiers can also weaken the words they modify. For example:
  • I don't need much money. I lead a fairly simple life. (TV presenter Karl Pilkington)
  • I make things up for a living. It would be pretty boring to write about real people. (Author Kristin Gore)
Here are two real-life examples of negative-sounding words providing strength to the words they modify.
  • I don't see myself as a philosopher. That's awfully boring. (Author and philosopher Ray Bradbury)
  • Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men. (Writer Joseph Conrad)
Intensifiers are sometimes called "boosters" or "amplifiers." Intensifiers that weaken are sometimes called "downtoners." Read also about limiting modifiers (e.g., "only," "hardly," "merely").

Why Intensifiers Are Important

Intensifiers are best avoided in formal writing because many consider their use as lazy writing. When writing formally, the level of intensity should be achieved through word choice (e.g., by using strong adjectives instead of intensifiers).
  • It is very tasty.
  • (This is considered as lazy writing.)
  • It is delicious.
  • (There is no need for an intensifier with a strong adjective like "delicious." In fact, "very delicious" and "extremely delicious" sound unnatural.)
Intensifiers are disliked to the extent that some copy editors start their work by running a macro on their PCs that deletes every "very" from the document. (If you do this, ensure you Find and Replace (which is CTRL H) "[space]very" otherwise words like "every" and "everything" fall victim to the cull.)

That said, there are three key issues related to intensifiers.

(Issue 1) Use intensifiers very sparingly.

This quotation captures why you should use intensifiers sparingly.
  • If everything is very important, then nothing is important. (Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney)
Intensifiers can be effective if you limit their use. If you were to use the word "very" just once in a document, then your readers would understand that "very" really does mean "very." Also, be aware that using intensifiers (especially overusing them) can portray you as melodramatic. Often, less is more. Look at this example:
  • Your child is very badly behaved, very loud, and extremely disruptive.
  • (The overuse of intensifiers suggests the teacher is unable to cope and raises a question about professionalism. Through formal training or experience, senior executives avoid words like "very" and "extremely," which do little to portray a sense of calm and control.)

(Issue 2) Don't double up your intensifiers.

Intensifiers fade with time. "Awfully" and "terrible" are good examples as they no longer exude the strength of the power-words "awe" and "terror." They have lost their shock value.

To overcome the diminishing effect of intensifiers, some writers (especially in informal writing) double up their intensifiers.
  • She tried very very hard.
  • Tomorrow's meeting is so terribly important.
Using two intensifiers tells your writers that you don't have the skills to find the right words. This practice might be efficient in, say, a text or an informal email, but definitely don't double them up in anything with even a smattering of formality.
  • What's that word that means you know lots of words?
    Yeah, that's it. I'm very very articulate.

(Issue 3) Exercise caution when using an intensifier with a non-gradable adjective.

A non-gradable adjective (e.g., "impossible," "unanimous," "dead") is one that expresses an idea to its maximum degree. If an adjective is truly non-gradable, then it stands to reason that it can't be strengthened or weakened. Dead means dead. Something can't be very dead. Therefore, using an intensifier with a non-gradable adjective could irk some of your readers.

Here are 10 common non-gradable adjectives:
  • absolute, dead, fatal, impossible, inevitable, principal, unanimous, unavoidable, unique, universal
Be aware though that many of these non-gradable adjectives have nuanced meanings that allow them to be graded. Let's look at "unique" because that's the one that causes most debate.

"Unique" can mean the only one of its kind, but, depending on which dictionary you use, it can also mean special or unusual. In the first meaning, you could make a case for "very unique" being wrong but not in the second meaning. There may also be times when "unique" in the first meaning is gradable, e.g., "This system is fairly unique."

Remember that we're dealing with language here not logic. The term "fairly unique" is succinct and easily understandable.

Of course, those who protest against terms like "very unique" (and it's a lot of people) could challenge the increasingly common, watered-down meanings of "unique," but they'd be arguing on a point of vocabulary not grammar. Sometimes, we have to accept that things change. "Literally" no longer means "literally," and "unique" no longer means "unique." Move on.

Key Points

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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