logo ELT Concourse teacher training
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.

warning

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.
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.

Many of these are adverbs derived 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


3

Three types

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:

  1. Amplifiers increase the strength of the item modified
    amplify
    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.
    emphasise
        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
    diminish
    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
    2. diminishers and minimisers which reduce the effect of the item they modify
      Diminishers reduce the strength of what is said:
          That's mildly interesting
          He's slightly irritating
          This is merely technical
      whereas minimisers place it at the lowest end of a scale:
          It's just possible
          That is not in the least entertaining

      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.
difference

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.)

fashion

Fashion

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 awfully nice

are now rarely heard although they were in common parlance not too long ago and may well come back into fashion.
Recently, the emphasiser so has become very common 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

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 one altogether will be invented.
See also the comments on the use of well below.

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.

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 with a context and some co-text.


special

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.

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

hot

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

astonishingly

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

cold

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.
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.
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.
    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
      or
          some fairly interesting books
      not
          *fairly a good party
      or
          *fairly some interesting books
    4. fairly can modify a verb providing the verb is quite strong 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 function is amplifying.
    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
      or
          some pretty interesting books
      not
          *pretty a good party
      or
          *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.
    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. 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
        to
            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
        and
            a quite wonderful evening
    4. 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
    5. 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
      etc.
    6. 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

        etc.
    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

      etc.
    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.  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)
      and
          I quite agree with you
      (= I completely 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 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

etc.

summary

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.


really

Really

Really?!

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

    etc.
    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
      or
          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
      but
          She's not really intelligent
      can mean
          She is not, in fact, intelligent
      or
          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.

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 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.
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
etc.
There are those who denigrate this use as illiterate but time will tell whether it becomes acceptable and how durable it will be.


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

storm

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.



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
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.


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