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Concourse 2

Intensifying adjectives

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Intensifying adjectives have some unique characteristics, as we shall see, so deserve special attention.  They are also extremely common, especially in spoken language, and their mastery can significantly enhance our learners' communicative powers.

caution

A word of warning

Any search of the web for intensifiers will produce some pretty odd results.

  • In many cases, they will be wrongly (or even not) classified, wrongly described or not intensifying adjectives at all.
  • One site has a long list of adjectives falsely classified as intensifiers which includes, for example, delicious, enjoyable, wicked etc. (which are all perfectly normal adjectives) mixed in with some true intensifiers such as utter and sheer.
  • Many will also assert that intensifying adjectives can only be used with abstract nouns.  It is certainly true that they are often used this way, but that assertion would make he's a real hero wrong, and it isn't, of course.
  • Some sites seem to equate intensifying adjectives with ungradable adjectives and include, therefore, adjectives like fascinating, hilarious and so on.  That is wrong and deeply unhelpful.
  • Many of the above and some others for good measure assume na├»vely that intensifying must mean something like 'making stronger'.  In non-technical uses of the word that's quite right but this is not a non-technical area.  In our sense, the word intensifying applies to changing the intensity of something and that can mean strengthening it, weakening it or making it approximate.

The following attempts to avoid these pitfalls.

An allied area is the discussion of adverb modifiers such as very, extremely, slightly, rather etc. to which there is another guide on this site.


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Two adjective distinctions

Before we get to intensifying adjectives themselves, we need to make two distinctions concerning types of adjectives.

filing

epithets and classifiers

If you have followed the guide to adjectives on this site, you may still be familiar with these terms.  However, here's a reminder.

epithets
are what we understand generally when we use the term 'adjective'.  They serve to modify the noun, rather than classify it.  For example, we can say it's a fast car, it's an expensive car, it's the slowest car, it's a beautiful flower, it's a blue flower and so on.  We can also use adjectives predicatively in, e.g., the car is expensive, the flower is blue etc.
classifiers
don't work like this.  We can, for example, have a saloon car, a racing car, a rent car and so on.  It is, however, not possible to have *the most saloon car, *the very racing car, *the rentest car, *the car is rent and so on.  These modifiers (which are often nouns) classify rather than describe.  Classifiers are only used attributively.  We cannot have, for example, *the car is saloon.

Intensifying adjectives are never classifiers; they are always epithets

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inherent and non-inherent adjectives

If you have followed the guide to adjectives on this site, you may also still be familiar with these terms.  However, here's another reminder.

inherent adjectives
refer directly to the noun.  For example, in the phrase an old woman, the adjective is inherent in the noun woman.  We can have, therefore, an old woman and the woman is old.  In other words, the adjective can be used attributively (in the first case) or predicatively (in the second case).
non-inherent adjectives
refer to something connected to the noun but not a characteristic of it per se.  For example, we can have the wrong candidate and the candidate is wrong but these have a different meanings.
The first means the candidate is the wrong person for the position, the second means the candidate is mistaken / has made an error.
Similarly, you can have an old friend but that can mean two things: the friend is old (an inherent characteristic of the person) and the friendship is long standing (a non-inherent characteristic referring to the friendship, not the person).
Conventionally, non-inherent adjectives cannot be used predicatively and retain the same meaning but there are exceptions to this, e.g.:
    a new member of the club
can also be expressed as
    the member is new
and that is a predicative use of a non-inherent adjective.

The distinctions outlined above are important in what follows so, if you like, you can try a short test to make sure you've got them clear.


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Intensifying adjective type 1: emphasisers

Emphasisers are quite easy to master because they only have a reinforcing or heightening effect on the noun.  This can mean making a positive sense stronger as in, e.g.:
    It was a great hit
or we can make a negative aspect weaker as in, e.g.:
    It was a mere triviality

There are two characteristics to note:

  • They are almost always used attributively: we can have
        the outright loss
    but not
        the loss is outright
  • They have homonyms which can confuse our learners: we can have:
        a pure lie
    in the sense of complete but not:
        *the lie was pure
    However, we can have:
        the pure water
    in the sense of unpolluted and
        the water was pure
    in the same sense.
    We can also have, e.g.:
        a certain loser
    or
        a sure loser
    which are both attributive uses as emphasisers.
    However, when we use the adjectives predicatively, the sense changes.  In:
        the man is certain / sure
    the adjectives cannot be used attributively and retain the same sense at all.

Some examples:

emphasiser example predicative use?
certain / sure a certain / sure bet No. *the bet was certain / sure
clear a clear success Yes. the success was clear
definite a definite problem No. *the problem was definite (but we can have the man was definite meaning sure)
mere a mere trifle No. *the trifle was mere
a real a real heroine Yes, but with a change in meaning from emphasiser to non-gradable adjective in the heroine was real (i.e., non-fictional)
simple / plain the simple / plain truth Yes, with a slight change in meaning (the truth was plain / simple, i.e., easy to understand)
true a true distinction No, *the distinction was true (but we can have the story was true with a change in meaning from real to accurate)
pure pure idiocy No, *the idiocy was pure (but we can use pure predicatively to mean unpolluted in other senses)
sheer sheer madness No, *the madness was sheer (but sheer can be used to describe steep cliffs etc.)
utter utter foolishness No, *the foolishness was utter


megaphone

Intensifying adjective type 2: amplifiers

Amplifiers are slightly more complicated.  They serve to scale the noun upwards from a conventional standard.  Hence the name.  Here, issues of inherent and non-inherent use are important.

Amplifiers can be both inherent and non-inherent.

  • We can have a complete disaster and the disaster was complete (both attributive and predicative use).  The adjective is inherent and refers directly to the noun.
  • We can have a great friend but not the friend was great.  Here, the intensifier is non-inherent.  It refers to the friendship, not the friend directly.

When amplifiers are inherent, they function exactly like emphasisers.
Here are some examples of inherent and non-inherent uses:

amplifier inherent
(predicative use allowed)
non-inherent
(no predicative use)
absolute his absolute power
his power was absolute
an absolute hero
*the hero was absolute
close the close decision
the decision is close
close relative
*the relative was close
great her great idea
her idea was great
a great friend
*the friend is great
perfect the perfect meal
the meal was perfect
a perfect idiot
*the idiot is perfect
complete my complete embarrassment
my embarrassment was complete
complete stupidity
*the stupidity is complete
firm his firm support
his support was firm
firm supporter
*the supporter is firm

At least four intensifying adjectives (very (as in, e.g., the very person), mere, sheer and utter) are always used attributively whatever function they perform.


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Being clear in teaching

Whether we trouble learners with terms such as inherent and non-inherent, classifier and epithet, the concepts behind these terms are important or we will encourage errors like:

*that supporter is firm
*the problem was definite
*his stupidity was pure
*the relative was close

Classifier or Epithet?

Getting the distinction clear between classifier and epithet is often one of raising awareness.  Many students, and teachers regrettably, have never thought about the area at all and assume that all noun pre-modifiers are adjectives of some sort.

A good beginning is to discuss with learners which of the following are acceptable and which are wrong and then go on to see why this is the case.

Example Right or Wrong? Why?
his is a fast horse but mine is faster    
he has a race horse but mine is more race    
I have a woollen jacket but hers is more woollen    
it was a brick wall    
the wall was brick    

and so on.  Most languages exhibit the distinction between epithets and classifiers so conceptually this is not hard to handle.

Inherent or Non-inherent?

Distinguishing between inherent and non-inherent uses of adjectives is more difficult because it is the meaning which changes rather than the form being always noticeably inaccurate.
One approach is to get learners to spot the difference between two phrases such as:

Are these all correct?  What's the difference in meaning?
Example 1 Example 2 What's the difference in meaning?
he's an old school friend my school friend is old  
he is the wrong teacher  the teacher is wrong  
that was a perfect lie the lie was perfect  
a certain man was here the man was certain  
my old teacher  my teacher is old  
a definite achievement  the achievement was definite  
that was complete rudeness that rudeness was complete  
that's total stupidity that stupidity is total  
he's the right person  that person is right  
it was sheer nonsense the nonsense was sheer  

and so on.  The issue here is that languages do not handle distinctions between inherent and non-inherent use in similar ways, and some do not distinguish at all, so a discussion on the differences in meaning can be very fruitful.



Related guides
adjectives for the general guide to the word class and more on inherent vs. non-inherent and attributive vs. predicative uses
adverbials for a more traditional (and quite complicated) approach to this area
adverb modifiers for a guide to adverb intensifiers: amplifiers, emphasisers, downtoners and approximators