Last updated on April 25, 2017
Weak intensifiers are thieves stealing power from your writing. They’re also sneaky little squealers telling the world you lack confidence.
Before you can understand why weak intensifiers are bad, we’ll need a quick grammar lesson. I’ll keep it simple.
Adverbs describe how weak or strong a verb is. Or another way to look at it is, adverbs amplify, enlarge or dampen the effect of a verb both in meaning and in emotional content.
Intensifiers are adverbs. They’re the ones we rely on to amp-up or magnify our verbs. In English, we have the ability to make adverbs out of other words by adding an ‘ly’ ending to them, though those aren’t the only kind there are. Intensifier adverbs made with ‘ly’ endings look like these:
We can also use adverbs for the opposite role, to downplay the meaning of verbs. These are called downtoners. Downtoners take the edge off the impact of verbs and are words and phrases like:
- sort of
- all but
All right, enough grammar.
Words are neither good nor bad. Words are words and you should love them all. More important, you should learn to use them to your advantage. When we refer to “good” or “bad” words, it’s with reference to the context in which they’re used. In some situations, some words work better than others, but the choices are vast, so no worries.
Copping out with a weak verb and then adding an intensifier to prop it up is the wrong way to go. It’s counterproductive. While it’s often appropriate to use adverbs since there’s nothing wrong with them, when you’ve used one, you should challenge yourself before you settle on that. Is that the best way to go? Work to choose stronger verbs and avoid siphoning power away from them with weak intensifiers.
Siphoning power away? Don’t adverbs amplify verbs?
When you don’t use a strong verb and opt for the weaker verb-plus-intensifier combination, it makes it appear you’re not confident. It comes across as sneaking up on what you meant to say for fear of offending someone or because you don’t believe in it enough. It conveys a lack of conviction in your meaning and a hesitation to express it. While you may never say this in so many words, it’s communicated with your word choices. Beginning writers suffer most from this, because they’re not yet confident in their “voice” or secure in their own inherent talent.
If you don’t appear confident in what you’re saying, the reader won’t be confident in it, either. It makes it more difficult to get them to suspend disbelief and even harder to get them to trust you and invest in your story. They won’t know why, but those sneaky little squealers will tell on you every time. It’s difficult to counteract things happening with the reader on a subconscious level, so don’t make your job harder than it needs to be. Choose strong verbs wherever you can.
Okay, so weak intensifiers… Avoid them! There’s going to be times it’s appropriate to use an intensifier and that’s okay. But avoid weak ones or you’ll be doing a disservice to the vehicle for your story. How can you tell if you have weak intensifiers? They’ll be the ones that, if you sit back and take a good look at them, come across as vague, passive, leave too much to interpretation or don’t provide clarity.
Examples of weak intensifiers
“never” and “always” These two are easy to remove from your writing and their absence will improve your overall quality and impact. When you state any action, the meaning is implied, so there’s no reason to restate it. These are filler words that add nothing and worse, will weaken your sentence. Try removing some from something you’ve already written and see how much oomph you gain.
“really” Perfect example of our weak intensifiers. The meaning of this one is vague. You’ll want to remove it from your sentence and rewrite it if needed. You may choose to leave it in, but if you do, do so knowing it will lessen the impact of your statement. Is that what you really want? (yes, pun intended)
“things” and “stuff” I’m not afraid to admit that I used to use these two when I first began writing back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, so don’t worry if you do. As long as you take note and work to get rid of them. The main problem with these two? They’re not specific and both leave a lot of room for interpretation. Where you would be inclined use them, instead, state what those things and stuff are. Define them and your statements will have instant punch.
“I feel” “I believe” “I think” These are weak intensifiers that convey a lack of confidence. They make it appear you’re sneaking up on your statement rather than coming out with it. It also shifts focus off your content and puts it on the writer. Anything that does that pulls the reader out of your story. Don’t make your audience think you’re unsure of what you’re talking about. These should be removed unless you’re using them in dialogue.
“was” “is” “are” “am” More weak intensifiers that don’t provide clarity. It’s part of the whole passive vs active voice thing. The solution here? Use active voice and you can avoid using these ones. The benefit is creating more movement in your story. Quick example? “The lawn was mowed by Kevin” (passive voice) vs “Kevin mowed the lawn.” (active voice).
“very” As far as weak intensifiers go, this one is unnecessary, so you can scrap it altogether. Why? It doesn’t communicate any info. I’d go so far as to say it’s the most useless word in the English language and we’re all guilty of using it in our speech. Work to remove it from your writing. When you feel inclined to use it, spend a moment to replace it with a better word that doesn’t need any intensifier. You’ll be better off.
Don’t allow weak intensifiers room to steal power from your writing. Careful and creative word choices will go a long way toward creating clarity and movement and that added punch to all your writing.