logo ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Intensifying adjectives: emphasisers, amplifiers, downtoners (and limiters)


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.


A word of warning

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

The following attempts to avoid these pitfalls.  It covers those adjectives which are:

  1. Emphasisers which enhance the quality of the noun, for example:
        It was plain stupidity
  2. Amplifiers which scale the quality of the noun upwards, for example:
        She's a great fan of hers.
  3. Downtoners which reduce the strength of the noun's quality, for example:
        He told a feeble joke
  4. Limiters which restrict the sense of the noun, for example:
        The main reason I went to London was to see her

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


Two adjective distinctions

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


epithets and classifiers

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

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.
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.
Classifiers are often called noun adjuncts but on this site, they usually aren't.

Intensifying adjectives are never classifiers; they are always epithets


inherent and non-inherent adjectives

If you have followed the guide to adjectives on this site, you may also 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).
This is important when we are considering intensifying adjectives because, as we shall see, some adjectives function as amplifiers to refer to an inherent quality and in these cases, may be used both attributively and predicatively.
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
which is an inherent characteristic of the person, and
    the friendship is long standing
which is 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.


Intensifying adjectives 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
This second example is not a sense of downtoning because the effect is to emphasise a negative quality.  In other words, it makes whatever is the subject more trivial not less so.

There are three characteristics to note:

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 (an inherent quality)
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
real a real heroine Yes, but with a change in meaning from emphasiser to non-gradable inherent 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).  Because this use is inherent in the noun, predicative use is permitted.
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
very the very tool I need No, *the tool was very

† As was noted above, the adjective real is polysemous in that it can act as an emphasiser in, e.g.:
    That was a real help.  Thanks.
and it acts to signal that something is factual as in:
    This is a real antique, not a copy.
The adverb has a similar dual nature, incidentally.

The word incredible is not in the list above although in casual (and not so casual) speech, it has lately come to mean something like sheer, true or utter.
It really means unbelievable, of course, and is used as a simple adjective in, e.g., an incredible excuse.  Partly, the use of emphasisers such as this is a matter of fashion and some words, such as terrible, spiffing and so on fall in and out of fashion over time.  This one will eventually go that way, too.
In advertising speak, the word means something like arguably quite good but probably not.


Modifying and grading emphasisers

Modification is irregular.
Gradability is likewise irregular (and slightly arguable).

emphasiser Modifiable? Example Gradable?  
sure YES It was a very sure bet YES This was a surer bet
certain YES It was a obviously certain outcome YES That horse was a more certain winner
clear YES Her success was quite clear YES Her success was clearer than ever before
definite NO *That is a quite definite problem YES? ?That's a more definite issue
mere NO *It is a very mere triviality NO *That's a more mere / merer triviality
real NO *She's an absolutely real help NO *She's a more real / realer help
simple YES The very simple truth is that we have no money YES? ?The simpler truth is that he can't come
plain YES It was quite plain stupidity NO *It was plainer stupidity
true NO *It is a very true distinction to be asked YES This was an even truer honour
pure YES That's absolutely pure idiocy NO *This is purer idiocy
sheer NO *That was absolutely sheer idiocy NO *I have never seen sheerer idiocy
utter NO *It was very utter foolishness NO *This is more utter foolishness
very NO *That is the absolutely very tool I need NO *That is the more very tool we need
*incredible YES She an absolutely incredible worker YES Her work was even more incredible

* The colloquial use of this word as an emphasiser and its ephemeral nature are noted above.

Nearly all these adjectives have adverbs derived from them which perform the same kind of emphasising function (for more , see the guide to adverb intensifiers, linked below).  Two, however, do not: there is no adverb form of sheer, and very (in this sense; in other senses, it is an adverb).


Intensifying adjectives 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.

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

amplifier inherent
(predicative use allowed)
(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

† When close means near or nearby, it is an adverb.  There is no derived adverb form which can be used as an intensifier.  All the other adjectives in this list have derived adverb forms.


Modifying and grading amplifiers

Modifiability and gradability are also irregularly possible with amplifiers.

amplifier Modifiable? Example Gradable? Example
absolute NO *his very absolute power NO *a more absolute hero
close YES the very close decision YES a closer decision
great NO *her very great idea YES her greatest idea
perfect YES a completely perfect meal NO *a more perfect idiot
complete NO *my very complete embarrassment NO *my more complete embarrassment
firm YES his very firm support YES a firmer supporter


Muddying the water

Many analyses do not distinguish between emphasisers and amplifiers but that is a mistake because, as we see above, they have different characteristics.
It is also true, however, that some adjectives can function in both categories and that can muddy the waters.  For example:
    It was a total fiasco
contains the word total acting as an emphasiser and we cannot have
    *The fiasco was total
because emphasisers are confined almost wholly to attributive use.
    They declared total war
contains the same word acting as an amplifier and we can allow:
    The war was total
because amplifiers can be used predicatively and attributively.


Intensifying adjectives type 3: downtoners

Downtoners serve to lessen the characteristics of a noun.
This is a much simpler category because most of these can be used both predicatively and attributively (although attributive use is generally preferred with many of them).
All we need here are some examples of the forms in which the presence of a '?' indicates that the predicative use is not accepted by everyone:

downtoner Attributive and predicative uses
feeble his feeble excuse
his excuse was feeble
tiny it was a tiny issue
the issue was tiny
slight a slight earthquake
?the earthquake was slight
poor a poor reason
?his reason was poor
minor a minor public school
?the public school was minor
slender a slender reason
?the reason was slender
small a small difficulty
the difficulty was small

It is probably safest, in the classroom, to prefer the attributive use, as you can see.

We need to be slightly careful when calling an item a downtoner because when the noun itself carries a negative meaning, some of these words act to amplify the sense rather than tone it down.  For example in:
    a trifling insignificance
    a petty inconsequentiality
the adjectives increase the sense of the nouns and are, therefore, amplifiers.

Unlike emphasisers and amplifiers, few of these adjectives have derived adverb forms which can function in the same way.
One may be able to talk of:
    a feebly convincing excuse
    a poorly argued point
    a slightly unpleasant experience

but tiny, minor, slender and small do not have derived adverbs functioning as downtoners.  For words which perform that function as adverbs, see the guide to intensifying adverbs linked below.


Modifying and grading downtoners

Thankfully, all downtoners can be both modified and made gradable so we allow, e.g.:
    It was a very poor excuse but hers was even poorer
    The earthquake was extremely slight
    She went to a very minor public school
    It was the tiniest problem



Type 4: limiters

You will note that the title of this section does not contain the term intensifying because, in fact, these adjectives are rather different.  However, they are included here because they share many characteristics and are often taught in parallel with intensifiers proper.
All of these are confined to attributive use in their role of limiting the characteristics of the noun they modify.
The problem with this class of adjectives is threefold:

  1. Some of them also act as emphasisers
  2. Many of them have homonyms which do not serve to limit the noun
  3. None is gradable

In the following, we have noted the problems in more detail.

Limiter example Issues
certain a certain student This word can be an emphasiser (see above) as in, e.g.:
He was the certain winner
This word also functions as a regular adjective to mean sure as in, e.g.:
The teacher was certain
and can be used predicatively.
Here it means a particular student.
particular the particular door This word also functions as a regular adjective to mean fastidious as in, e.g.:
The teacher was very particular about the homework task
and can be used predicatively.
specific the specific officer This word also functions as a regular adjective to mean unambiguous as in, e.g.:
The teacher was very specific
and can be used predicatively.
chief the chief reason None.  These are purely limiters.  None can be used predicatively so we do not allow:
*The reason was chief
*The reason is principal
*The reason is main
principal the principal reason
main the main reason
exact the exact cause These words also functions as regular adjectives to mean accurate as in, e.g.:
The number was exact
The figures were precise
and can be used predicatively.
Here, the adjectives are close synonyms to specific.
precise the precise cause
only the only time This word is often an adverb as in, e.g.
She only came to help
This word also functions as a regular adjective to mean without siblings as in, e.g.:
She's an only child
but it cannot be used predicatively in any sense.
sole the sole time Unlike only, this is never an adverb and has no other function although it has noun homonyms.
very the very table This is an extremely common adverb amplifier as in e.g.:
That's very beautiful
It is also an emphasiser and covered in that section above, as in, e.g.:
She spoke at the very beginning of the meeting
but in both its adjective roles can only be used attributively.
Here, it is often replaceable with actual.

Limiters, by their nature can neither be modified nor graded so we do not allow:
    *The was the very main reason
    *This is the most principal reason
    *That is the more very table


As adjectives, these words are usually limiters but the derived adverb forms, where they exist often perform a different function.


Collocational issues

perfect weather

All modification is, to some extent, constrained by semantic considerations so we do not encounter, for example:
    *It was simple weather
because the sense of simple forbids the juxtaposition.
There are, as you are probably aware, few rules that apply to picking the correct collocation in any language but learners can be led to noticing appropriate uses by raising awareness of some of the following:


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 classifiers (also known as a noun adjuncts) and epithets 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
intensifying adverbials for a guide to adverb intensifiers: amplifiers, emphasisers, downtoners and approximators