A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies another word or phrase by adding descriptive, limiting, or qualifying details. Adjectives modify nouns, and adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and everything else. Intensifiers are a special class of modifier that work like volume-control knobs for other modifiers.
For example, a sunset isn’t just beautiful, it’s very beautiful. The barista isn’t merely rude, she’s extremely rude. Politicians are really oily, and puppies are so cute.
We all do this, especially in conversation. Instead of saying that someone is kind, and that we are touched, we turn it up to eleven and say they’re awfully kind, and that we are deeply touched. (Preferably with an upper-class British accent.)
We frequently tack intensifiers on to words that don’t need them. It’s fine to describe someone as very angry, but there’s no need to add intensity to words like livid, furious, or enraged. Watch out for these, and cut them out when you find them.
The other problem is that we apply intensifiers to words that are worn out through over use. For example, great has been used so much to describe things that are really good (“How was your date with Baxter?” “It was great!” “Was the movie good?” “It was great?” “And that new restaurant?” “That was great too!”), that we feel like we can’t just call things great anymore; we need to turn up the intensity by calling them really great.
This habit is a symptom of laziness or a poverty of vocabulary—we don’t want to do the work of giving an apt description of something, or we can’t think other words we could use, so we fall back on great, coupled with a few stock intensifiers like very, really, and extremely.
But when we do, the intensifiers we use become just as tired as our modifiers. We call on them so frequently that they never get any rest, and they have no energy left to add intensity to our tired words. As Arthur Plotnik says in Spunk and Bite: A writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style*, “Exhausted adverbs cannot intensify weary adjectives.”
Replace those tired intensifier/modifier combinations with fresher, more fitting modifiers. Pull out a thesaurus and figure out if that sunset is stunning, beauteous, resplendent, delightful, awe-inspiring, or ineffable. Is the barista just rude, or is she surly, boorish, churlish, impertinent, brusque, or cantankerous?
If you’ve used the right word in the first place, you don’t always need to turn it up to eleven. If you do decide to add intensity, pick an adverb that is fit for the task. Try to spice things up with a bit of creativity. Then, that really cute puppy becomes “radioactively cute,” and the surly barista is “corrosively surly.”
Better still, toss out the standard intensifiers and modifiers and mix in some similes, metaphors, and other rhetorical devices. In that case, the puppy is “1.21 gigawatts of cute poured into a five-pound sack of fur, floppy ears, and over-sized feet.”
*Besides having a brilliant title, this book is a cracking resource if you want to spice up your writing. I wish I had been smart enough, and good enough, to write it before Art did. Buy it, read it, and then read it again.