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Concourse 2

Intensifying adverbials: emphasisers, amplifiers, downtoners

normal intense intensifying adverbs

Intensifying adverbials have some unique characteristics.  They are common, especially in spoken language and their mastery can significantly enhance our learners' communicative powers.
Most of the exemplification which follows concerns adverbs proper (because they are the most common forms) but it should always be remembered that adverbials of other sorts, particular prepositional phrases (such as in general), noun phrases (such as a bit) and adverb phrases (such as more or less) also function in this way.

Here's the list of the contents of this guide.
Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will bring you back to this menu.

Warning Style and register Definitions and types Summary of types Fashion
Functions Modifying adjectives Modifying adverbs Collocation quite, rather, fairly, pretty
really and almost Modifying prepositional phrases Modifying determiners Modifying noun phrases Teaching the area


A 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 adverbials (or even 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).
This is, however, not a non-technical area.

Intensifying adverbials 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 (downtoning) or an approximate degree.  They are all analysed here as intensifying adverbials because they all affect the intensity of what is said or written.
An alternative (wrong) term for these is, because of the function they perform, adverbs of degree.  However, that disguises the difference between, e.g.:
    I greatly enjoyed the film
    She slightly overstated the case
    They deeply respected their professor

in which the adverbs of degree modify the verbs and
    You are remarkably intelligent
    She was tremendously upset
    They were absolutely furious

which are examples of the adverbs functioning as intensifiers of the adjectives which they modify.  It makes sense, therefore, to focus separately on adverbs of degree (which modify verbs for the most part) and intensifying adverbials which perform a different function altogether despite the fact that some adverbials may fall into both categories depending on use.

This is not a universally accepted definition because some sources will stick to the idea that an intensifier must, by definition, make the modified element stronger or more intense.  Compare, for example:
    That is somewhat trivial
which reduces the effect of the adjective with
    That is extremely trivial
which enhances the effect of the adjective but, at the same time, makes the subject less, not more, important.  Replacing trivial with important results in the reverse.

This guide uses a number of technical terms, all of which are defined below but other analyses vary in the categories they use and the terms they employ.  Usually, however, terminology is more or less parallel so do not be surprised if you come across alternative categories from the ones used here.

Many of these are adverbs derive from intensifying adjectives which perform a similar role (for more, see the guide to intensifying adjectives, linked below).  Some, however, do not and the limiting adjectives certain and particular as in, e.g.:
    A certain difference of opinion arose
    That particular student was quite wrong

are used adverbially as emphasisers as in:
    That is certainly the wrong approach
    This is particularly difficult to do



Style and register

While the adverbs and adverbials which form the topic of this guide are often to be found in quite formal writing operating as adjuncts modifying verbs, intensifying adverbials which affect adjectives and adjective phrases are more common in spoken language for good reasons.  So, for example, we find an adverb such as positively used to modify a verb, assert, as in:

    ... it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science
Charles Darwin, Introduction to the Descent of Man (1971), introduction

However, we are unlikely to encounter the same adverb used as an intensifier in, e.g.:

    ... it is a positively brilliant idea

because the use of such an adverb to amplify or boost the power of the adjective is usually confined to less formal written or informal spoken texts.  In formal texts, the adjective alone will be chosen with care to carry the whole meaning and there are those who would argue that the use of positively in that clause is actually redundant because it adds so little to the meaning.
In fact, research shows that using intensifiers inappropriately in formal written language actually decreases rather than increases the writer's credibility.  The advice is to avoid their overuse in academic, scientific and legal registers.

Intensifiers are used to signal expressiveness and function to fulfil what some see as a basic human need to add impact to what is being said.  They occur frequently, too, in newspaper language and in informal writing such as texts and emails.  They are vanishingly rare in formal written communication because they are stylistically disallowed in that environment.
It is for this reason that intensifiers are subject to fashion and to a certain amount of bleaching out of their meanings.  We shall consider fashion with regard to these items in more detail below.



Definitions and three types

Intensifiers are not separate word classes.  They are identified by what they do semantically rather than syntactically, therefore.
Many intensifiers are akin to (and sometimes confused with) adverbs of manner but when the words are used as intensifiers, they modify not a verb directly but another adverb or an adjective (mostly).  So, for example, in these sentences we have simple adverbs of manner modifying the verb and not acting as intensifiers of any kind:
    She spoke severely
    They explained plainly
    I dived deeply
    Mary complained bitterly
    She barely spoke
    They judged the outcome fairly

and in all these cases, the adverb is doing what adverbs mostly do and telling us the manner in which the action is understood to have happened.

Intensifiers, on the other hand, do not modify verbs (in fact, they cannot by definition) but instead add emotional strength or emphasis to another sentence or clause element.  In the following, therefore, all the word in black are intensifiers of one sort or another:
    That was severely disruptive
    You are plainly wrong
    That is deeply frustrating
    We are bitterly opposed to the idea
    It was barely acceptable
    That was fairly perfect!
    It was fairly well done
and you can see that although the words are the same, they are performing a very different function.
The central and most common intensifier in English is the adverb very which itself cannot modify a verb directly so we do not allow:
    *She very drove
because this adverb is only an intensifier.
The word can act as a simple test for intensification because if it can replace the adverb in question, we know immediately that we are dealing with intensification.

There are these three sorts of intensifying adverbials.  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 and there are other forms which can do the modification, too.

  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
          That is wholly correct
    2. Boosters which enhance the strength of the item:
          You are deeply mistaken
          That is severely limited
          They were considerably delayed
  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's simply wonderful
        She is obviously uncertain
        That's evidently better
  3. Downtoners diminish the strength of the item they modify
    They come in three shades:
    1. compromisers (a small group which imply the speaker is not entirely certain)
          That's quite nice
          He's sort of friendly
          That's usually OK
      These intensifiers are often accompanied by other hedging devices such as in:
          The music might have been quite loud
          That's more or less OK, I think

      and so on.
    2. diminishers and minimisers which reduce the effect of the item they modify
      Diminishers reduce the strength of what is said and are the antonyms of boosters:
          That's mildly interesting
          He's slightly irritating
          This is merely technical
      whereas minimisers place it at the lowest end of a scale and are the antonyms of maximisers:
          It's just possible
          That is not in the least entertaining
          That's marginally allowable

      and 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.

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
(Quirk et al, p444)


A summary of intensifiers

Here's where we are:

summary so far

For teaching purposes, it makes some sense to divide things up like this because otherwise the area becomes too vague and hard to access.  However, compromisers and approximators form a group (because it is often difficult and rarely necessary to distinguish them) and so do amplifiers (of both sorts) and emphasisers.
It also makes sense, nevertheless, to treat downtoners separately from the other categories because of their function.

If you like, you can take a matching test to see if you can identify the seven different sorts of these.
Click here to do that.
Please don't worry if you didn't have all the right answers.  It is sometimes very difficult to decide what the function of an intensifier is without a context and some co-text.




Emphasisers 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's awfully nice

are now rarely heard although they were in common parlance not too long ago and may well come back into fashion.  The process is known as renewal and is a persistent feature of the language.  As words such as tremendously, once confined only to collocation with adjectives expressing fear or apprehension (because it derives from the Latin tremendus, meaning fearful) it is now encountered with a much wider range of collocating adjectives with have nothing to do with fear or apprehension.  We may hear, then:
    tremendously interesting
    tremendously important
    tremendously cold

and thousands of other expressions which, if we rely on etymology for our understanding of meaning are nonsense.  Fortunately, we do not have to and generally should not rely on etymology for meaning.

The adverb so was once only encountered in comparative expressions such as
    She was so happy that she jumped for joy
and so on.
Recently, the emphasiser has become very common and now occurs as a modifying adjunct (and adverb of manner, not an intensifier) as in, for example:
    I so like your scarf
    I so enjoyed meeting his mother
and even modifying a noun phrase as in, e.g.:
    He is so the person I want to meet
It also now regularly occurs as an adverb intensifier of an adjective with no comparative meaning in, for example:
    That is so beautiful
in which it just means something akin to very 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 one altogether will be invented.
See also the comments on the use of well below.

Other adverbs such as terribly and awfully were once confined to associations of fear and awe but have been delexicalised in Modern English and now function as simple amplifiers.  They have not retained their negative connotation in the language either so while less than a hundred or so years ago we would only encounter terribly in expressions such as
    They were terribly violent
    She was terribly cruel
    The gods were awfully angry

and so on, we now regularly encounter expressions such as
    That was really awfully kind of you
    He's terribly intelligent

and so on.
Such extended and delexicalised uses of these two adverbs are traceable to the mid-20th century.

One intensifier adverb, incredibly, and its adjectival equivalent, 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 (with any luck).
Of course, in advertising speak, the word incredibly means something like possibly mildly interesting to someone.



Functions: what's so special?

Adverbs, of course, are also a subclass of adverbials and function to modify verb phrases and other language elements.  That is, however, not what concerns us here.  Linked below is a general guide to adverbs and a guide to adverbials and you can follow those links to consider a broader picture.

As was stated at the outset, intensifiers do not directly modify verbs at all.
These intensifying adverbials (which are most frequently adverbs proper) 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. That is slightly less than I expected
  6. I'm afraid her hair was rather a shambles
  7. This is only just allowable



Modifying an adjective

too hot to drink

Adverbials which modify adjectives are overwhelmingly adverbs so that is our focus here.
It should remembered that other structures can do this job, too, so we can have:

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


A fairly recent development is the extended use of the intensifying adverb well as a synonym for very.  It has occurred for centuries in expressions such as
    well pleased
    well organised
    well accepted
    well bred
    well educated

and operates as an intensifier for positive participial adjectives.  As is the case with very, it is not normally used to modify extreme or ungradable adjectives.  Additionally, it cannot be used to modify any negatively connoted adjectives so, for example:
    *well broken
    *well disorganised
    *well ignorant

and so on, are not normally encountered.
Of late, the use has also been developed beyond positive, participial and gradable adjectives in informal speech to include expressions such as
    well good
    well angry
    well annoyed
    well envious
    well amazed
    well heartbroken
There are those who denigrate this use as illiterate but time will tell whether it becomes acceptable and how durable it will be.



Hyphenation with adjectives modified by intensifying adverbs, especially well and its antonyms, badly and poorly, but also with other intensifiers is a debatable area.  Spell checkers and dictionaries do not agree on the style to be used.

There are three issues:

  1. Compound adjective or modified adjective?
    If removing the adverb from the phrases leaves no or a different sense, it may be considered a compound adjective.  Therefore, we get, e.g.:
        well-adjusted people
        well-presented essays
        badly-built houses
        fully-meant comments

    and so on because we cannot use the adjectives alone to betoken the same meanings and do not permit:
        *adjusted people
        *presented essays
        *built houses
        *meant comments.

    On the other hand, if we can omit the modifying adverb with no great change in meaning as in:
        well-pleased customer
        well-painted house
        well-known writer
        hugely-respected academics
        entirely-forgotten issue
    then we are dealing with just an adjective modified by an intensifier because we can have:
        pleased customer
        painted house
        known writer
        respected academics
        forgotten issue
  2. Attributive use:
    When the combination of an adverb + adjective is used attributively, a hyphen is often considered conventional whatever the meaning of the phrase and whether it is a compound adjective or an adjective modified by an adverb.
    Compound adjectives always require the hyphen so we get, e.g.:
        It was a well-aimed question
        She asked a highly-connected friend for help
        They are very well-behaved children
        They are badly-behaved dogs
        It was a badly-designed house

        It was a poorly-phrased letter
        They had a poorly-made car

        They tried to employ only well-adjusted people
        The students wrote well-presented essays
        The company invested in well-built houses
        Hers was a bitterly-worded letter

    and in these cases, removing the adverbs results in something close to nonsense because we cannot allow:
        *an aimed question
        *a connected friend
        *behaved children
        *behaved dogs
        *designed house

        *phrased letter
        *made car

        *adjusted people
        *presented essays
        *built houses
        *worded letter

    However, we also use the hyphen in other cases of attributive adjective use, even when the phrase is not operating as a compound adjective, so we get, e.g.:
        They were well-pleased customers
        They were well-known problems

    because we can also allow:
        pleased customers
        known problems
    This is notably the case with common adverbs such as well, badly, poorly etc. but also occurs with other intensifiers such as in:
        It was a fully-formed plan
        She had a readily-understood excuse

        She said he was an easily-forgotten man
    But the majority of the adverbs listed in this section are not used with a hyphen.
  3. Predicative use:
    Even when the adverb forms part of a compound adjective, we can conventionally omit the hyphen so we allow:
        The question was well aimed
        Her friend was well connected
        The children were well behaved
        The dogs are badly behaved
        The house was badly designed

    But, in these cases, we often encounter the hyphenated use, especially with well, poorly and badly as in:
        The question was well-aimed
        Her friend was well-connected
        The children were well-behaved
        The dogs are badly-behaved
        The house was badly-designed

        The letter was a poorly-phrased
        The car was poorly-made

    although such uses are frequently disparaged and often considered plain wrong.
    What is not acceptable is a hyphen in predicative uses of a phrase which is clearly just the adjective modified by an adverb and not part of a compound adjective, so we allow:
        The customers were well pleased
        The problems were massively exaggerated
        The door was entirely rotten

        The letter was bitterly worded
        The problems were entirely forgotten

    but not:
        *The customers were well-pleased
        *The problems were massively-exaggerated
        *The door was entirely-rotten
        *The letter was bitterly-worded
        *The problems were entirely-forgotten

Advice to learners (and you):



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

A range of intensifiers can modify other adverbs in this way but one adverb, very, resists modification for the most part so we do not encounter, e.g.:
    *greatly very nice
    *a bit very foolish

and so on.
However, the adverb may be modified by so and that word can serve to increase the strength of the adverb (as an emphasiser) as in, e.g.:
    That was so very kind of her
    We were so very grateful for her help

etc. or to tone down the strength of the adjective in negative clauses as in. e.g.:
    It wasn't so very different really
    The car wasn't so very expensive, in fact

and so on.
There is a separate guide to the uses of both so and such linked below.



Collocational issues

bitterly cold

All modification is, to some extent, constrained by semantic considerations so we do not encounter, for example:
    *It was vastly cold
because the sense of intensifiers such as enormously, hugely, massively and vastly is not applicable to weather conditions (with the odd exception of windy, incidentally).

We saw above, however, that there is an identifiable tendency in English for some intensifiers to become delexicalised and, as the original meaning is bleached out, the range of collocating adjectives increases.
Intensifiers such as awfully, tremendously, fantastically, terrifically, horribly, terribly, decidedly and so on while some retain their negative connotations are frequently found with positive adjectives with which they would not previously been encountered.  Thus we may find:
    It was decidedly / tremendously / horribly / terribly cold

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:


ice cream

quite, rather, fairly, pretty

rather nice ice cream

These four words cause difficulty both semantically and syntactically so need separate treatment.  On many websites designed for learners (and, alas, teachers) you will find them described as adverbs of degree.  That is not the line taken here but it is an acceptable analysis in the analysis of one of them, fairly, as we shall see.
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 four 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 / pretty as the least powerful and rather as the strongest of the four.  That's actually rather misleading.

  1. fairly
    is generally considered to be the weakest of the four, along with pretty, 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:
      1. 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 probable 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
        but ...
      2. we do not accept:
            *That is fairly freezing
            *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.
      3. nor do we accept:
            *They were fairly alone
            *They were fairly identical
            *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.
    2. 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.
      The verbs which are used in this case are, generally speaking, unscalable.  Less emphatic verbs do not naturally collocate with fairly so, e.g.:
          *I fairly disliked the play
      is not acceptable but
          I fairly hated the play
      When the word modifies a verb phrase it is not an intensifier, it is an adverb of manner.
    3. Determiner position:
      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
    4. fairly can modify a verb providing the verb is quite strong, as we saw, so, although:
          *I fairly like her
          *She fairly hopes to be here

      are not allowed, we can allow:
          I fairly adored the play
          She fairly hated the food

      and in these cases the semantic function is amplifying but the grammatical function is an adverb of manner, not an intensifier at all.
    5. fairly cannot be used to intensify a noun so:
          *It is fairly a mess
          *They got fairly a bargain

      etc. are disallowed.
    6. 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. pretty
    This word is a normal central adjective but it is also an intensifying adverb confined to colloquial English and, in that setting, it is very common.  It is usually at the same strength level as fairly meaning moderately.  It serves to tone down the strength of what it modifies but when it is heavily stressed, it may act as an amplifier.
    1. It is used with gradable adjectives and adverbs.  For example:
      1. We accept:
            She was pretty lucky to do so well
            We came home pretty late
            A pretty heavy snowfall slowed the traffic
            It was pretty probable that we would have more snow
            A pretty likely outcome is more expense
            I bought it pretty cheaply
            They came pretty quickly
            It rained pretty heavily last night
        and in all these examples, fairly could be substituted with the same meaning and the same strength.
        However, ...
      2. Unlike fairly the word pretty can be used routinely with both extreme and ungradable adjectives (although the second use in particular is often disparaged as incorrect despite how commonly it is heard).  This is the first way in which it differs from fairly.  In these cases, the adverb serves, when the whole phrase is stressed, to amplify not tone down the meaning.  We allow:
            It was pretty freezing
            That was pretty delicious
            I felt pretty devastated
            She came pretty unexpectedly

        and some people will also allow:
            They were pretty alone
            They were pretty identical
            A pretty untrue statement
            It was pretty perfectly done
            He spoke pretty mistakenly

        even though these adjectives are not scalable at all and cannot be modified with fairly.
    2. Determiner position:
      Exactly like fairly, when pretty modifies a gradable adjective + noun phrase, it must come after the determiner, before the adjective so we get:
          a pretty good party
          some pretty interesting books
          *pretty a good party
          *pretty some interesting books
    3. pretty cannot be used to intensify a noun so:
          *It is pretty a mess
          *They got pretty a bargain

      etc. are disallowed.
      (But, of course, as an adjective it is common in attributive use.)
    4. The second way that pretty differs from fairly is that fairly may be used to modify a strong verb in colloquial English so we encounter:
          I fairly loved the book
      but pretty cannot do that so:
          *I pretty loved the book
      is not heard.
      This word is, therefore, not able to act as an adverb of degree at all.
    5. The word pretty can, however, combine with well to form an amplified adverb phrase modifying a verb so we can encounter:
          They pretty well ruined the party
          They pretty well spoilt the dinner

      but the use is generally confined to verbs with negative connotation.
    6. pretty cannot modify comparative or superlative forms (see below for what can).  We cannot, therefore, have:
          *It was pretty better
          *She was pretty the tallest
  3. quite
    is polysemous and causes difficulty because of its colligational characteristics 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.
      1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. ambiguity can arise with some adjectives and adverbs which seem to straddle the border between gradable and ungradable concepts.  For example:
          They come here quite regularly
      can mean
          with complete regularity
          with fair regularity
          The experiment was quite successful
      may mean
          completely successful
          fairly successful
      The second interpretation is likely to be the most common in all cases unless the word quite is heavily stressed.
    4. determiner position:
      1. when quite modifies a gradable adjective + indefinite article + noun phrase, it normally comes before the indefinite article so we prefer:
            quite a good party
            a quite good party
        although both orders are possible.
      2. when quite co-occurs with the definite article, it must precede it so we allow
            quite the best outcome
        but not
            *the quite best outcome
      3. with other determiners, it follows the determiner, so we get:
            some quite nice pictures
        and not
            *quite some nice pictures
      4. when quite modifies an unscalable or extreme-end adjective, it can come in either position with any determiner 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 and pretty cannot so we allow:
          I'd quite like to see her
          She quite enjoys parties

      etc., but not, as we saw above:
          *I'd fairly like to see her
          *She pretty 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
      When the word modifies a verb phrase it is not an intensifier, it is an adverb of manner.
    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
  4. rather
    is, in terms of strength in a medial 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 four 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 more hastily than I should have
            They are rather hotter curries than I like
      2. but not
            *It was fairly more expensive
            *She spoke quite more rudely
            *They are pretty 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
            some rather good food
      2. when rather is used with quantifiers, it follows but may not precede the determiner
            a few rather nice desserts
            twelve rather rude children
        but not
            *rather a few nice desserts
            *rather twelve rude children
    7. rather can also modify verbs directly as can quite.  In  this case, therefore, it is acting as an adverb of manner, not an intensifier.
      So, we get:
          I rather / quite enjoyed the football
          We rather / quite liked the performance
      When it is used with ungradable verbs, however, rather does not carry the sense of completely as quite does.  There is, therefore, a difference between:
          I rather agree with you
      (= I tend to agree with you)
          I quite agree with you
      (= I completely agree with you)
      To repeat, when the word modifies a verb phrase it is not an intensifier, it is an adverb of manner.
    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 four adverbs which can precede too so we allow:
          That's rather too expensive
      but not
          *That's fairly too expensive
          *That's pretty 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



In that table, naturally, the word quite to mean moderately, is inappropriate for use with extreme or unscalable adjectives and superlatives.  Equally, when the word is used to mean completely, it cannot, semantically, be used with scalable adjectives, verbs, nouns and comparative forms: hence the blank cells.
The functions of pretty and rather depend on the stress they are given but with no special stress they act as downtoners (see above).

Alert readers will recall that at the outset we averred that intensifiers do not directly modify verbs, that being the role of adverbs of manner.  However, in this section we have broken our own restriction and suggested that three of these words (excluding pretty) can, in some circumstances modify verbs directly.  That is the point of columns four and five above, of course, and it is made clear in the discussion.
However, we need to repeat here that we have done this for the sake of completeness, not theoretical purity and in fact in, e.g.:
    She fairly despised her sister
    I rather disliked the meal
    Mary quite delighted in the present
    John quite enjoyed the concert

all the adverbs are acting not as intensifiers but as simple adverbs of manner.  This may be a distinction on which it is unwise to dwell too long with learners of the language.



really and  almost


The adverb really is troublesomely polysemous and can cause some comprehension and production issues, as well as some ambiguity, unless we are alert to the fact that it carries two distinct but connected meanings.

  1. amplifying
    This is the way the word has been treated so far so, for example:
        She's really intelligent
        That's really helpful

    The word really simply amplifies the meaning of the adjective.
    Easy, and good enough for most learners.
  2. truthfully
    This is the original meaning of the word (and the one usually cited first in dictionaries).  The word in this meaning is the adverb derived from the adjective real and works to signal that something is a fact rather than supposition or imitation.
    There are two ways this is used:
    1. We can have:
          She is really intelligent
      and we can also have:
          She acts stupid but she's really intelligent
      which is slightly ambiguous because it could mean:
          She acts stupid but is very intelligent
          She acts stupid but is, in reality, intelligent
      We can avoid some of the ambiguity by moving the adverb and having:
          She acts stupid but really is intelligent
      The simple way to discover which is meant is to replace the adverb with the prepositional phrase adjunct, in reality.  If that is possible, we are dealing with the truthfulness meaning, not the amplifying effect.
    2. In negative sentences we see the same issue so:
          She's really intelligent
      will be taken to mean:
          She's very intelligent
          She's not really intelligent
      can mean
          She is not, in fact, intelligent
          She's not very intelligent
      Again, we can move the adverb to avoid the ambiguity and make it function as an attitude or content disjunct giving us:
          Really, she's not intelligent
      which has only one interpretation, i.e., that the speaker believes the proposition to be true.

The adverb really has one other ability not shared with most other intensifiers in that it can itself act to modify another intensifier.  We cannot accept, for example:
    *It was very absolutely lovely
    *She was absolutely obviously exhausted

and so on because intensifiers for the most part do not co-occur.
However, we can use really in this way and accept:
    It was really absolutely lovely
    She was really obviously exhausted
modifying boosters in both cases and also accept:
    It was really entirely unique
    That was really wholly unnecessary
where it modifies maximisers.

To an extent the adverb almost can also pull off this trick but it only functions to downtone a maximiser as in:
    That was almost perfectly done
    I am almost wholly correct in this

and it cannot be similarly used to tone down a booster so we do not accept:
    *That was almost amazingly good
    *It was almost significantly wrong

(Intensifiers may, of course, co-occur as adverbial phrases in, for example:
    It was fundamentally and completely wrong
    She was downright, horribly rude

but in these cases, both intensifiers are modifying the adjective separately, not modifying each other.)


into the river

Modifying a prepositional phrase

straight into the river

This is quite a common occurrence but only a small group of intensifying adverbs can do it.  The effect can be to amplify, tone down or approximate the prepositional phrase.  Here are some examples:

The examples above include the five most common adverbs that can do this: dead, well, exactly, right and clear / clean which are all amplifiers.
The use of wide in wide of the mark is a fixed idiom deriving from archery.  In this case, it is adjectival rather than adverbial but behaves a little like a prepositional phrase in itself.  Compare, e.g.:
    His estimate was wide of the real cost
    The actual quantity was wide of the amount we wanted
The word is adverbial, however, in an expression such as
    Keep them wide apart
where it modifies the adverb apart.

Prepositional phrases can also be used with intensifiers which tone the meaning down or approximate so we allow, too:
    They fell almost into the river
    He put it nearly in the centre
    They arrived virtually at the same time
    The car drove practically into the river

    His house is roughly behind that hill
    It was approximately opposite the garage

A slightly arguable view is that some adverbial intensifiers, notably those in this list, can be used to modify wh- interrogatives so we get, e.g.:
    Where exactly do you want this?
    When precisely did she leave?
    How widely is she known?
    Just whom did you ask?
    Why specifically did you do that?
    Whose properly was it?

and so on.
This is arguable because the adverbs can be seen to be modifying an implicit prepositional phrase or noun phrase so we can expand the clauses to get:
    In what place exactly do you want this?
    At what time precisely did she leave?
    To what extent is she known?
    Just which person did you ask?
    For what reasons specifically did you do that?
    To whom properly did it belong?

They may also be considered adjuncts modifying the verbs want, leave, know, ask, do and be in the clauses.
However, such expressions form a teachable and useful set of targets for the use of these sorts of adverbs.


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

There is scope with these modifications for some vagueness to occur so, for example:
    almost 20
may signal anything between around 17 and 20 but probably not less, and
    around 20
will normally signal between 17 and 23.
Approximating prepositional phrases exhibit the same phenomenon so, e.g.:
    up to 40
signals no more than 40 but certainly more than 30 although, technically, it should be any number not exceeding 40.
    over an hour
signals more than 60 minutes but probably not more than 75 although, technically again, it should mean any length of time in excess of 60 minutes.  We do not, however, find:
    The universe formed over an hour ago
except in jest.



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
  5. We spent a good six hours on the essay
    (this is, in fact adjectival rather than an adverb modifier)

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.



Teaching the area

While it is somewhat rare to focus purely on intensifiers as a teaching target, it may be done in an effort to equip learners with greater language resources to add impact to what they are saying or writing.
There are, however, some issues to bear in mind.


Collocation and bleaching (delexicalisation)

We saw above that certain adverbs collocate in predictable ways with certain types of adjectives so, for example:

So, if these form the topic of a lesson or part of a lesson, it is important to present them with typical co-textual adjectives and adjective phrases.  Not to do so will often lead to errors such as
    *She was openly happy
    ?They were highly inexperienced

and so on.
While it is almost always possible, for particular effect, for unusual collocations to be coined on the spur of the moment by native speakers, it is unhelpful for teaching purposes to focus on rarities.

However, we also know that some intensifiers have been bleached of their original meanings and now collocate very widely indeed although a few still retain positive or negative connotations.



It makes sense, especially at lower levels, to focus on those intensifiers which are most frequent in the language and which will be most often encountered and provide the greatest range for the learners.  For that, we need to refer to some corpus research.
For British English spoken data the following are presented as the most frequent, most widely collocating intensifiers.

(Source: Zhiber and Korotina, 2019, p80.)

The figures of American Standard spoken English are similar although absolutely exchanges places with pretty and completely and entirely also swap places.
Similar figures are obtained from newspaper language.
It will not have escaped your notice that all these intensifiers are delexicalised and no longer carry significant positive or negative connotations.
However, there is a mix here in terms of the semantic functions with totally, absolutely, completely and entirely functioning as maximisers while the others are boosters.  This needs your focus if learners are not to produce errors such as
    *It was totally cold
    *That was very perfect

Teaching these nine intensifiers first will nevertheless pay dividends in terms of both productive and receptive skills.


quite, rather, fairly, pretty

The analysis of these four adverbs carried out above reveals the complications and numerous pitfalls so they need to be handled with great care if your learners are not to be overwhelmed by trying to remember how the adverbs are used.
The most flexible of all is the adverb rather but it is also the least frequent.  The adverb fairly is quite limited in terms of syntax and, of course, quite carries two distinct meanings.
A sure way to bewilder learners is to present them together with no or inadequate focus on meaning.



There are three issues here:

  1. Style
    We saw above that these items are, mostly, confined in their intensifying use to informal writing and spoken language so that is the context in which they should be set.  Not focusing on style may lead learners to overusing the items in more formal writing in certain registers which will be jarring and inappropriate.
    Indeed, Zhiber and Korotina, drawing on Long and Christensen (2008) state that:

    overuse of intensifying adverbs (very, clearly, obviously and the like) negatively affects the credibility of a legal argument. The authors measure intensifier use against outcomes and prove that excessive intensification in appellate briefs is directly related to adverse outcomes.

    It takes no great leap of imagination to guess that in scholarly registers other than the law, a writer's credibility will be significantly undermined by overuse of intensification.

  2. Focus of intensification
    It has been observed that by far the most frequent use of intensifying adverbs and other adverbials is to modify adjectives and adjectival phrases.  Bäcklund (1973), cited in Zhiber and Korotina, concluded that 72% of intensifying adverbs were used with adjectival heads.  Given the overwhelming use of them in this syntactical context, therefore, it is clearly arguable that this is the way they should be initially presented.
    The items can, as we saw above, be used to modify a range of other word and phrase classes but such modification is probably better left alone until your learners are confident in using them as adjective modifiers.
  3. Intensifiers of whatever sort are not performing the same function as adverbs of manner and it is wise to keep them separate in presentation and practice.  If we mix up, for example:
        She drove amazingly
        She drove amazingly well
    then we are inviting some confusion.
    Equally, a word such as intensely is performing a very different semantic and grammatical function in:
        She worked intensely on the problem
    in which it is an adverb of manner from
        It was intensely painful
    in which it is an intensifier.


Related guides
adverbs for a general guide to this word class
intensifying adjectives for a parallel guide to emphasisers, amplifiers, downtoners and limiters
prepositional phrases these are sometimes modified by a small set of adverbs and are often adverbial in nature
so and such this is a short guide to these two troublesome words which, in some cases, can act to amplify the strength of adjectives and adverbs
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- and post-determiners pre-determiners are 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
Zhiber, EV & Korotina, LV, 2019, Intensifying adverbs in the English language, in Training, Language and Culture Vol 3 Issue 3 pp. 70-88 doi: 10.29366/2019tlc.3.3.5