Intensifiers in English Grammar

Intensifiers in English Grammar

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In English grammar, an intensifier is a word that emphasizes another word or phrase. Also known as a booster or an amplifier.

Intensifying adjectives modify nouns; intensifying adverbs commonly modify verbs, gradable adjectives, and other adverbs. Contrast with downtoner.


From the Latin, "stretch, intend"

Examples and Observations

  • "Oh, I am so not in the mood for this. I've just been shot!"
  • "The woodwind has a slightly greater scope than the violin."
  • "The women I had as very close friends were very independent women, very progressive. They're very sensitive about social change."

Functions of Intensifiers

"To some degree, an intensifier acts as a signal: it announces that the word following it is worn out and that it should be understood as inadequate. For example, in the phrase an utterly beautiful night, the author is saying, 'Look, I mean something beyond beautiful, even if I don't have the precise word; try to imagine it… "

Versatile Adverbs

"Intensifiers are morphologically perhaps the most versatile category of adverbs in English. A glance at their history would appear to support the layering hypothesis. There are intensifiers that may be called fused forms, such as the suffixless very and compound somewhat, which both go back to Late Middle English, whereas the phrasal expressions sort of and kind of are more recent."

Boosters and Language Change

"Humans are indeed natural-born exaggerators, and this trait is one of the main driving forces behind language change. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the constant renewal of intensifying words, or what are sometimes called 'boosters.' These are the little words that fortify adjectives. They express a high point along a scale. Something isn't just good but awfully good, terribly good or even bloody good. Inevitably, such dramatic words wear out with time and become mundane. Alternative expressions then have to be found. This has already happened to boosters like awfully, terribly and horribly. You can see that at the root of these expressions are words like awe (originally, 'fear, dread'), terror and horror. So they had strong, even gruesome beginnings. But overuse bleached them of this energy and force, and before long they meant little more than 'very."

Repeat Intensifiers

"The sheer number of intensifiers, all with more or less the same meaning, is significant. If you haven't made your case, you have to pound the adverbial drums, the same way the boy in the story had to insist that this time, there really, really, really was a wolf."

Strunk and White on Intensifiers

"Rather, very, little, pretty-these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then."

William Cobbett on the Adverbs of Exaggeration (1818)

"Be rather sparing than liberal in the use of Adjectives. One which expresses your meaning is better than two, which can, at best, do no more than express it, while the additional one may possibly do harm. But the error most common in the use of Adjectives is the endeavoring to strengthen the Adjective by putting an adverb before it, and which adverb conveys the notion that the quality or property expressed by the Adjective admits of degrees: as 'very honest, extremely just.' A man may be wiser than another wise man; an act may be more wicked than another wicked act; but a man cannot be more honest than another; every man who is not honest must be dishonest, and every act which is not just must be unjust.


Meg Masters in Supernatural, 2005

John Philip Sousa

Toni Morrison

Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style. Random House, 2005

Terttu Nevalainen, "Three Perspectives on Grammaticalization." Corpus Approaches to Grammaticalization in English, ed. by Hans Lindquist and Christian Mair. John Benjamins, 2004

Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011

Ben Yagoda, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It. Broadway Books, 2007

William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 1972

William Cobbett, A Grammar of the English Language in a Series of Letters, 1818

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