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Concourse 2

Intensifying adverbs: emphasisers, amplifiers, downtoners

normal intense intensifying adverbs

Intensifying adverbs have some unique characteristics.  They are common, especially in spoken language and their mastery can significantly enhance our learners' communicative powers.

A word of warning:

Any search of the web for these things will produce some misleading results.  In many cases, they will be wrongly (or even not) classified, wrongly described or not really adverbs at all.  The following attempts to avoid these pitfalls.
The reason for the confusion is often a naïve understanding of the term intensifier which, at first sight, seems to imply only making things stronger (because that's what it means in a non-technical sense).

Intensifying adverbs do not always increase the effect of item they modify, as a careless understanding of the term would suggest.
They can also suggest a low degree or an approximate degree.  They are all analysed here as intensifying adverbs because they all affect the intensity of what is said or written.


Three types

There are these three sorts of intensifying adverbs.  In these all the examples are of adverbs modifying adjectives to keep things simple but, as we shall shortly see, there are many other items that they can modify:

  1. Amplifiers increase the strength of the item modified
    1. Maximisers denoting the extreme end of a scale:
          that is completely wrong
          you are totally mistaken
    2. Boosters which enhance the strength of the item:
          you are deeply mistaken
          that is severely limited
  2. Emphasisers usually express the speaker's point of view, making it clear that something is to be considered emphatic and stressed.
        that is plainly untrue
        she is obviously uncertain
  3. Downtoners come in three shades:
    1. compromisers (a small group not considered here further which imply the speaker is not entirely certain)
          that's quite nice
          he's sort of friendly
    2. diminishers and minimisers which reduce the effect of the item they modify
          that's mildly interesting
          he's slightly irritating
          that is not in the least entertaining

      (minimisers are generally negative in sense)
    3. approximators which suggest that the quality is close but not in fact quite there
          that's practically perfect
      but not perfect
          she's almost approachable
      but not actually approachable
          that's virtually illiterate
      but not fully illiterate

A note on distinguishing the forms:
if you want to distinguish precisely between an amplifier and an emphasiser, there is a simple test.
Amplifiers can appear in sentences such as:
    She didn't altogether enjoy the party but she enjoyed it a bit
Emphasisers in the same sort of sentence produce nonsense:
    *She really didn't enjoy the party but she enjoyed it a bit
(Thanks to Quirk et al, p444, for that.)

A note on fashion:
Amplifiers, and boosters in particular, go in and out of fashion as they become worn by overuse and lose their effect.  Expressions such as
    I'm terribly happy to see you
    She awfully nice

are now rarely heard although the boosters were in common parlance not too long ago and may well come back into fashion.
Recently, the booster so has become very common as in, for example:
    I so like your scarf
    He is so the person I want to meet

etc. but it, too, will one day fall from use as it becomes stale and its strength is eroded.
Nobody knows what might replace it.  Perhaps heartily will see a return to fashion or a new booster altogether will be invented.

One intensifier adverb, incredibly, has recently lost its sense of difficult or impossible to believe and now means something close to very, at least in careless and informal language.  It, too, will fall out of fashion and may even be restored to its previous meaning.


What's so special?

Adverbs, of course, are also a subclass of adverbials and function to modify verb phrases.  That is, however, not what concerns us here.  Click these links if you want a general guide to adverbs or a guide to adverbials.

These intensifying adverbs perform some discrete functions.  They modify:

  1. adjectives
  2. other adverbs
  3. prepositional phrases
  4. determiners
  5. noun phrases

Can you pick out what the adverbs, in black, are doing in the following examples?  Click here when you have a list.

  1. He spoke extremely amusingly
  2. That's very nice of you
  3. He kicked the ball right out of the ground
  4. Almost every boy came
  5. I'm afraid her hair was rather a shambles


Modifying an adjective

too hot to drink

Here are four more examples.  What's going on?  Click here when you have an idea.

  1. She has a really beautiful face
  2. It was a slightly mistaken view
  3. The meal was hot enough
  4. It is psychologically impossible for him to agree


Modifying another adverb

playing astonishingly maturely

Here are some examples.  Which ones are acceptable and which aren't?  Why?  Click here when you have decided.

  1. She spoke fantastically quickly
  2. They came surprisingly early
  3. I spoke interestingly persuasively
  4. They understood quickly intelligently

ice cream

quite, rather, fairly

rather nice ice cream

These three words cause difficulty both semantically and syntactically so need separate treatment.  They are intensifiers, serving to amplify or tone down the item they modify and can be used with adjectives and adverbs.  There, unfortunately, the similarity ends.
Semantically, the strength of these three lies below too and very but much depends on co-text and context.
The usual way to describe the meaning is on a scale with fairly as the least powerful and rather as the strongest of the three.  That's actually rather misleading.

  1. fairly
    is generally considered to be the weakest of the three, meaning something like moderately.  It serves to tone down the strength of what it modifies.
    1. It is used primarily with gradable adjectives and adverbs and not with those that represent one end of a scale or which are, in themselves, not scalable.  For example:
    2. We accept:
          She was fairly lucky to do so well
          We came home fairly late
          A fairly heavy snowfall slowed the traffic
          It was fairly probably that we would have more snow
          A fairly likely outcome is more expense
          I bought it fairly cheaply
          They came fairly quickly
          It rained fairly heavily last night
      are all acceptable, but ...
    3. we do not accept:
          *They were fairly alike
          *That was fairly delicious
          *The fairly boiling weather
          *I felt fairly devastated
          *She came fairly unexpectedly

      because these adjectives represent the extreme of a scale so cannot be modified with fairly.
    4. nor do we accept:
          *They were fairly alone
          *That is fairly freezing
          *A fairly untrue statement
          *It was fairly perfectly done
          *He spoke fairly mistakenly

      because these adjectives are not scalable at all and cannot be modified with fairly.
    5. Very colloquially, however, fairly can be used with ungradable adjectives and some verbs and in this case it serves to amplify the sense rather than tone it down so we can hear (but not usually read) for example:
          I was fairly disgusted, I can tell you!
          It was fairly freezing in the car!

          He fairly rushed in
      etc.  In all these cases, the function of fairly to amplify the adjective or verb phrase is signalled by placing heavy stress on the whole adjective phrase.
    6. determiner position:
      1. when fairly modifies a gradable adjective + noun phrase, it must come after the determiner, before the adjective so we get:
            a fairly good party
            some fairly interesting books
            *fairly a good party
            *fairly some interesting books
    7. fairly cannot be used to intensify a noun so:
          *It is fairly a mess
          *They got fairly a bargain

      etc. are disallowed.
    8. fairly cannot modify a verb so:
          *I fairly like her
          *She fairly hopes to be here

      are not allowed.  (But see above for the colloquial use of fairly as an amplifier when it can modify a verb phrase.)
    9. fairly cannot modify comparative or superlative forms (see below for what can).  We cannot, therefore, have:
          *It was fairly better
          *She was fairly the tallest
  2. quite
    is polysemous and causes difficulty because of the way it colligates with certain adjective and adverb types.  It can act to tone down or amplify what it modifies but there are restrictions.
    1. when it modifies gradable adjectives, it means moderately and tones the meaning down.
    2. so in:
          It was quite nice
          She was quite helpful
          They were quite disappointed
          They arrived quite quickly
          The boat sailed quite slowly
          The weather was quite good
      the adverb quite can be replaced with fairly with very little change to the sense.
    3. when quite modifies an unscalable adjective or one which already represents an extreme end of a scale, it means completely and amplifies.
      1. so, with extreme-end adjectives:
            She acted quite absurdly
            They are quite exhausted
            That is quite superb

        etc. the adverb is an amplifier
      2. and with unscalable adjectives:
            That is quite perfect
            You are quite wrong
            I am quite alone here

        it also amplifies.
    4. determiner position:
      1. when quite modifies a gradable adjective + noun phrase, it normally comes before the article so we prefer:
            quite a good party
            a quite good party
        although both orders are possible.
      2. with other determiners, it follows the determiner, so we get:
            some quite nice pictures
        and not
            *quite some nice pictures
      3. when quite modifies an unscalable or extreme-end adjective, it can come in either position so we get:
            quite a wonderful evening
            a quite wonderful evening
    5. quite can amplify the sense of nouns and noun phrases.  For example:
          That was quite a party
          That was quite a fiasco
          He was quite an idiot to do that
    6. quite can modify verbs directly in the way that fairly cannot so we allow:
          I'd quite like to see her
          She quite enjoys parties

      If the verb is itself unscalable, the meaning is, again, completely:
          I quite agree with you
          I quite abominate sugar in tea

          I quite understand
    7. quite cannot modify comparative forms (see below) but it can modify superlative forms and means completely.
      1. We cannot have:
            *It was quite nicer weather
            *That's quite more expensive
      2. but we allow:
            She was quite the most miserable guest
            It was quite the most delicious meal
  3. rather
    is, in terms of strength in a mid-position between fairly and quite (in the sense of completely).
    1. rather acts to amplify positive attributes and tone down negative ones
      1. with positive attributes, especially when preceded by really, it is an amplifier
            That's really rather good
            That's rather generous of you
      2. with negative attributes, it tones down the power of the adjective
            That's rather ugly but it works
            She's really rather arrogant but has good reasons to be
    2. rather is the only one of the three used with comparative forms.
      1. We can have, therefore
            It was rather more expensive than I expected
            She is rather ruder than she should be
            I spoke rather hastily
            They are rather hotter curries than I like
      2. but not
            *It was fairly more expensive
            *She spoke quite more rudely
            *They are fairly hotter

    3. rather cannot, however, modify superlative forms so while we allow, e.g.:
          That was quite the stupidest thing to say
      we do not permit:
          *That was rather the stupidest thing to say
    4. rather can modify words at the extremes of scales and carries the meaning of considerably as in, for example
          The sisters are rather alike
          That was rather extraordinary
          The play was rather marvellous
          It was rather beautifully written

    5. rather cannot, however, modify unscalable adjectives in the way that quite can.  So, we cannot have:
          *That is rather mistaken
          *She is not rather finished
          *Are you rather ready?
    6. determiner position:
      1. when rather modifies either of the two types of adjective + noun phrase permitted, it can come before or after the determiner so we can have:
            rather a good party
            rather a wonderful outcome
            a rather good party
            a rather wonderful outcome
    7. rather can also modify verbs directly as can quite.  So, we get:
          I rather enjoyed the football
          I rather agree with you
    8. rather can also amplify the sense of some nouns and noun phrases in the same way that quite can.  We can have, therefore:
          He's rather a fool
          That's rather a mess
    9. rather is the only one of these three adverbs which can precede too so we allow:
          That's rather too expensive
      but not
          *That's fairly too expensive
          *That's quite too expensive

Here's a summary of the main points only.  We have included the colloquial use of fairly with more extreme-end verbs.  Even with this inclusion, fairly is the least flexible of the adverbs.
It does, however, exist as a simple adverb of manner or disjunct along with its opposite so we can have:
    He judged the result fairly
    Unfairly, he awarded a penalty


quite rather fairly

into the river

Modifying a prepositional phrase

straight into the river

This is quite an uncommon occurrence and only a few intensifying adverbs can do it.  Here are some examples:

  1. She is dead against the idea (Note that in, e.g., She argued strongly against the idea, the adverb is modifying the verb, not the prepositional phrase.)
  2. He submitted it well inside the deadline
  3. He kicked it right over the fence
  4. She fell clear through the ceiling
  5. It jumped clean over the fence

The examples above include the four most common adverbs that can do this: dead, well, right and clear / clean.  They are all amplifiers.

fancy dress

Modifying a determiner

nearly all the guests

There are three sorts in these examples.  What are they?  Click here when you have an answer.

  1. Absolutely no idea
  2. Almost every student understood
  3. Nearly a dozen came
  4. Around twenty people arrived
  5. He stayed about an hour


Modifying a noun phrase

quite a storm

These are rare and often quite informal modifications.  Here are some examples:

  1. It was quite some do
    (see above for more)
  2. What a fool she has been!
  3. He left the kitchen in rather / quite a mess
    (see above for more)
  4. He is such a fool

These, too, are sometimes classified as pre-determiners but for teaching purposes that is not a source of great concern.  Their function is to amplify the meaning of the noun.

Related guides
adverbs for a general guide to this word class
adverbials for a guide to other verb-phrase modifications
adjectives for a guide to a related area
gradability for more on scales of adverbs and adjectives
pre-determiners this class of determiners is mentioned twice in this guide

Click here for two short tests on this.

Quirk, R, Greenbaum, S, Leech, G & Svartvik, J, 1972, A Grammar of Contemporary English Harlow: Longman