Unlike modifiers, which modify words or phrases, an Intensifier is a term for a modifier that amplifies the meaning of the word it modifies. An intensifier is used exclusively to modify adverbs and adjectives and is placed before the word it is meant to modify.
In simple terms, the intensifier emphasises adverbs and adjectives - it makes them more intense. The word is derived from Latin, meaning to “intend or stretch”.
In grammatical terms, the intensifier lends no weight to the meaning of a sentence other than to give it an additional emotional nuance to the word it is modifying, however, since they modify adverbs and adjectives, they should be treated in the same way adverbs adjectives – used little and sparingly wherever possible within your writing.
This is where learning to spot them will benefit your quality of writing. Intensifiers are attributive and serve only to fill space, so unless there is a valid reason to intensify the meaning and emotion of sentences, such as in a character's dialogue, it’s in every writer’s interest to know how to spot them and get rid of as many as possible.
The kinds of words that ‘intensify’ adjectives are words such as ‘really’, ‘completely’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘totally,’ etc.
It was a really good show.
It totally took me by surprise
This is absolutely none of my business
They are completely over the moon
She was dead sexy
If we were to remove the intensifiers, the sentences would be better, like this:
It was a good show.
It took me by surprise
This is none of my business
They are over the moon
She was sexy
Now you can see why you really should limit intensifiers wherever possible, because they merely make the narrative clunky and some sentences are totally surplus to requirements.
Not only that, but some intensifiers are so overused in modern day English, it would be like sprinkling your story with dreaded clichés. ‘Totally’, ‘very’ and ‘absolutely’ are two of the most overused and misused words used as intensifiers. Avoid them.
Another important point to remember is that some words are now being used in place of others and so the actual meaning is incorrectly replaced. For instance, the word absolute means ‘complete, unconditional or perfect’, however it has been misused so often that it is now used to mean ‘yes.’ This is not the actual meaning of the word, so using the intensifier ‘absolutely’ degrades the meaning and intensity that you are trying to achieve and it is also grammatically incorrect.
Another one that I hate seeing in MSS is ‘real’, as in "real cute". Once again, its use on this occasion is not grammatically correct and when used other than in dialogue (where it is acceptable as part of a character’s nature), it degrades the quality of writing.
Of course, like everything in creative fiction, everything has its place and purpose, so sometimes the odd intensifier here or there isn’t a sin, but your writing should contain as few adverbs and adjectives as possible, and that also goes for the adverbs and adjectives that you’d intensified.
There are some considerations for intensifiers, too. Some intensifiers are known as adverbs of degree. These are adverbs which measure the intensity or degree of an action, an adjective or another adverb. In other words, the degree of intensity or strength is measured, for instance:
She sang really badly – this tells us how bad her voice was.
He enjoyed the show tremendously – this tells us how much he enjoyed the show. He enjoyed it very much.
Now contrast the two sentences with other adverbs of degree:
She sang extremely badly - this tells us it wasn’t just bad, it was terrible. The degree of adverb is more intense.
He enjoyed the show greatly – the degree of adverb here isn’t as emotionally strong as tremendously, so as readers we understand the degree of intensity used.
This is how adverbs of degree work. The exceptions to this are that the words ‘moderately’, ‘slightly’, and ‘barely’ are all adverbs of degree, but they are not intensifiers.
Once again, writers should avoid using degrees of adverbs because it makes the narrative sound as though it has been written by a ten year old.
The overuse of intensifiers in fiction weakens the strength of the narrative, so use a few as possible. Also, remember that the grammatical meanings of some words have been misused as intensifiers, so make sure the meaning you want to convey is not only grammatically correct, but also correct within the narrative.
Next week: Qualifiers