Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GrammatiCats: Intensifiers

Hey guys - sorry for the late post today.  Let me tell you, those hyphens will take it right out of you.

So let's kick it back into an easier gear today, with - funnily enough - intensifiers.

Wait, what?

Pinkie Rating: 4

Take a look at Judgmental-Cat here.  What word could we safely delete from this sentence?

Yep: 'really' isn't really carrying any essential weight.  It's acting kinda like that one guy who always sandbags it when you're moving furniture: he LOOKS like he's helping to heft that couch, but really he's just there for the free pizza.

This is one example of an intensifier: a word* used to add emotional emphasis to the word** it modifies.   Basically, it's a verbal underlining of whatever word comes after it, as if to say, "this, but to the max!"

*which happens to be an adverb
**which happens to be an adjective or another adverb

Try this: what words could you use to fill in this blank?

If you said -
  • really
  • very
  • quite
  • so
  • super
  • damn
  • hella
  • awfully
  • totally
  • extremely
  • utterly
  • truly
- or similar, then you've got a natural ear for this intensifier thing.  Notice how the words above are different from a standard adverb.  For example, how would 'surprisingly' be different from the words above?  It's still describing 'nice' and we could still safely delete it, right?

True enough!  But it's also introducing a new idea to the sentence.  It's saying, "I did not expect this nap to be very nice, and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that it is, in fact, nice as hell."

What if we used a word like 'somewhat' or 'slightly'?

Likewise, those modify 'nice' and can be deleted, but they don't count as intensifiers, because they're making 'nice' less intense, rather than more so. A better way to say it is that they are not adding emotional emphasis to the words they modify.  (What they are is 'degree adverbs', which mean that they quantify the word they modify - somewhat, profoundly, moderately, pretty, kind of, hardly, scarcely, etc. - but aren't suggesting that you feel a certain way about it.)

Furthermore, English has a number of "part-time" intensifiers.  For example,

In this case, 'sincerely' is an intensifier: it's emotionally emphasizing the same idea already found in 'hope'.  (In other words, it's not like you can hope insincerely - because then it's not really hope at all, is it?)

However, if we had a sentence like,
It was a promise sincerely made. 
Then 'sincerely' is actually pulling some weight, because it tells us that this wasn't a false promise, but a real one.  Here, 'sincerely' isn't an intensifier, because it introduces a new idea to the sentence.

You see this all the time in everyday usage: adverbs that COULD introduce a new idea, but which are paired with words that render them mostly redundant.  For example:
  • sincerely hope
  • honestly believe
  • seriously doubt
  • categorically deny
  • fully convey
"All right," you may say, "so basically what you're saying is that intensifiers are silly and unnecessary and we shouldn't use them?"

Not in the slightest - not in the least!  For all that your 8th-grade English teacher derived grim pleasure from systematically striking 'very' and 'really' from your compositions, intensifiers are called that because they actually, seriously do intensify the words they serve.

That can be a handy way to add emphasis to what you're saying.  Personally, I don't think Judgmental-Cat and Butt-Cat would be as funny if we didn't have 'really' and 'sincerely' in there.  And you can see with Nap-Cat how the intensifier can help the two sentences run parallel, while adding a little extra punch to the second one.

However, it is true that these are easy words to overuse, and can add significant belly-flab to your writing if you aren't careful with them.

(Sorry, Jak - couldn't resist.)

So what can you do if you know you have an issue with these?  One handy trick is to write your composition, and then do a Search/Find for "ly " (with the space at the end, so you won't catch "lying", for example), along with "really," "very," and whichever other words you know you have on mental speed-dial.  Then you can decide one by one whether they're adding value to your work.

And the SUPER sneaky trick for hardcore intensifying felons: take these words out of your word processor's dictionary.  Here's a guide for removing items from Microsoft Word's dictionary, but you can find others with a little Googling.  Let the squiggly red line be your adverbial chaperone!

In conclusion: use intensifiers in your prose as you would salt in your food: sparingly, thoughtfully, and to good purpose.  Unless we're talking margarita glasses.  Then you can go bananas.

Further reading:

This isn't entirely on-topic, but in researching intensifiers, I stumbled across this article:  How To Tell if the Boss Is Lying.  Guess what kind of words lying bosses like to use?

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1.  Firefly, courtesy of Jarret O.
2.  Our own naptacular Peaches
3.  Apollo, courtesy of Honor√© Hillman
4.  Crookshanks, because I can't quit harassing Jak Cryton

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Great post. I may have found some more fluff words that need to be searched and possibly deleted.

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful! And like you said previously: all's fair in love and dialogue...!

  2. This is a totally, really, hella good post. Seriously though, I know I'm guilty of this, so I'm going to trawl through my written work and and be ruthless.

    1. ME TOO. Is there an Oulipo method for these? Because that would make for some terribeautiful poetry - kind of like "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Day." Except probably with more line breaks, and some positively riveting imagery.

  3. I was trying out your "ly " search and I noticed a lot of the word "only", so I did a search for the word "only" and came up with 266 occurrences in my 181k word manuscript (cut down from 189k), so I'm going to see about eliminating some. I did a search for "really" and came up with 26 occurrences. Not bad, so many of those will stay. Seems I need to make a list of overused words to search and destroy for this draft.

    1. Hey dudette - awesome to hear from you! And man, WAY TO CUT - 8,000 down already is awesome! Try adding 'just' to your search-list as well: I didn't mention it in this post, but that's another one that sometimes sneaks in when I'm not looking. ('That' also gets a lot of play, but you better have a strong stomach if you're going to target that one - there's always such a depressing load of it...!)