How to use intensifiers in English

How to use intensifiers in English

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated November 10, 2022

Do you ever feel that the words you’re using aren’t quite right? That they express your general meaning, but not exactly as you want? Maybe you need to use some intensifiers! In this post, we talk all about intensifiers in English: what they are, how to use them and more!

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What are intensifiers?

Intensifiers in English are adverbs (a kind of adverb of degree) that can make a word stronger or weaker and more meaningful. An intensifier typically modifies the adjective that comes right after it.

These words don’t really mean anything on their own – if they’re removed from a sentence, the sentence will still make sense. 

How to use intensifiers in English

Intensifiers vary in strength, so they’re not all interchangeable: using ‘fairly’ instead of ‘really’, for example, will change your meaning. The best way to understand how to use intensifiers in English is to go through some examples, so let’s get into it!

Making an adjective stronger 

Let’s start with the adjective ‘tired’: On an average evening, you might say something like:

‘I’m tired, so I’m going to bed’.

Your meaning here is pretty straightforward: your day is over and you no longer want to be awake. But what would you say if you had just worked 12 hours, on your feet the whole time, with no break? ‘I’m tired’ doesn’t seem strong enough, does it? 

In that case, you’d be better off saying, perhaps, ‘I’ve been working all day. I’m insanely tired’. Instantly, the person you’re speaking to will understand exactly how tired you are after such a long day!

Making an adjective weaker 

As we mentioned earlier, intensifiers can also make adjectives weaker. That might sound strange, considering their name has the word ‘intense’ in it, but what can we say? To demonstrate, let’s take that example from above, but instead of making it stronger, we’ll make it less strong. Imagine your friend asks you if you want to join her at a restaurant for dinner.

You say to her: ‘Sure, I’d love to! Let’s not stay out too late, though. I’m pretty tired’.

In this case, you’ve still got enough energy to go out, so you’re not 100 percent tired. You’re just somewhat tired. 

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Common intensifiers and how to use them

There are many intensifiers in English, and they vary in strength. Below are a few commonly used ones. 

While there might be slight variations in how someone uses them, these intensifiers are more or less in order from weakest to strongest.

These intensifiers can be used for both positive and negative statements:

  • Pretty
  • Fairly
  • Quite
  • Really
  • Very
  • Super
  • Extremely
  • Incredibly
  • Insanely

These intensifiers are used to say something negative:

  • Awfully
  • Dreadfully
  • Horribly
  • Terribly 

Here are a few examples for you . . .

Statement: I’m pretty disappointed I can’t come to the party. 
Meaning: You’re disappointed, but not too disappointed; you’ll be fine.

Statement: Can we order our food? I’m really hungry.
Meaning: A casual way of saying ‘very’: You’re very hungry.

Statement: That hotel is incredibly expensive.
Meaning: The hotel’s prices are higher than most others. It’s more than very expensive.

Statement: My mom’s cooking is terribly bland.
Meaning: Her cooking has no flavor at all; it needs a lot more seasoning.

What not to do

While it’s important to know how to use intensifiers in English, it’s equally important to know how not to use them. For that reason, we’ve put together a list of intensifier no-nos. 

One thing worth mentioning: As you probably know, the ‘correct’ rules of a language often don’t apply when you’re casually speaking to someone, texting or chatting online. Nonetheless, it’s good to know the rules before you break them!

1. Avoid using intensifiers with strong adjectives.

It’s okay to use an intensifier with a word like ‘bad’ because it’s not a very strong adjective – so saying extremely bad’ is perfectly fine and makes the adjective more meaningful. 

However, the word ‘awful’ is a strong adjective: it already means ‘extremely bad’. For that reason, you shouldn’t use an intensifier. It doesn’t sound right to say ‘extremely awful’, as it’s repetitive. Just saying ‘awful’ is enough!

2. Don’t use two intensifiers together.

This is especially important when you’re writing something formal, like an essay. Saying something like ‘The movie was incredibly, amazingly good’ just doesn’t sound right, and it certainly doesn’t make an adjective extra-strong. Stick to one intensifier to get your meaning across – more isn’t always better!

3. Don’t use intensifiers with non-gradable adjectives.

Some adjectives are gradable, meaning they can vary in degree: you can be fairly cold or really cold, for example. There’s a range of how cold you might feel. 

Some adjectives, however, are non-gradable – either they’re true, or they’re not. There’s no in-between. 

Look at the word ‘dead’, for example. Someone can’t be fairly dead or really dead. They can only be . . . dead. 

Some other non-gradable adjectives are: acceptable/unacceptable, destroyed, fatal, finished, impossible, perfect and ruined. 

4. Be wary of very.

The intensifier ‘very’ is well-loved. It’s easy to remember, say and understand. But it’s also incredibly overused, and it’s the least descriptive and most unimaginative intensifier. If you want to strengthen an adjective, there are usually better intensifiers to use than ‘very’!

5. Try not to overuse intensifiers.

Intensifiers can be very useful, for sure. They have the ability to transform a common adjective into a more descriptive, stronger one. But it’s often better (especially in formal situations) to think of another word entirely: ‘really happy’ is good, but ‘ecstatic’ is great!

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Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.

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