10 Intensifiers You Should Really, Absolutely Avoid

By Mark Nichol

You are not hereby forbidden to employ the following adjectives according to their casual connotations, but to strengthen your writing, try limiting usage to that which most closely reflects their literal meaning:

1. Absolute: The original sense of absolute is “ultimate,” but now it is weakly used as an intensifier (“It was an absolute riot!”). Minimize, too, usage in the connotations of “outright” and “unquestionable” and reserve it to mean “unrestrained” or “fundamental.”

2. Awesome: Originally, something awesome inspired awe. Now, the most mundane phenomena are exalted as such. Try devoting this word to truly spectacular sensations alone.

3. Fabulous: This adjective, derived from fable, once referred to sensory stimuli one might expect to encounter in a flight of fancy. It’s long since been appropriated to describe extravagant fashion sense or, more mundanely, notable accomplishments, but it is most potent when restricted to describing phantasmagorical phenomena.

4. Fantastic: Avoid using as a synonym for excellent; senses such as “unbelievable,” “enormous,” and “eccentric” are truer to the source.

5. Incredible: As with fantastic, usage of this word has strayed far from the original meaning of something that does not seem possible. Only if a story literally cannot be believed is it authentically incredible.

6. Magnificent: Something magnificent was originally grand or sumptuous, exalted or sublime, but the word has been diminished in impact by its exclamation in response to merely commendable achievements. Reserve usage to describe things of stunning impact.

7. Real: This term derives from the Latin term res, “thing, fact,” and should be used only to denote genuine, actual, extant, practical phenomena; minimize its use, and that of the adverb really, as a synonym for complete or completely.

8. Terrific: Terrific, originally referring to something terrifying, has long been rendered impotent by use as a synonym for great, but try to reserve it for such descriptions as “a terrific crash.”

9. Very: The most abused word on this list — and one of the most in the entire English language — comes from the Latin word for “true.” Consider restraining yourself from using it in writing except to convey verity, precision, and other adjectival connotations, rather than the adverbial sense of “exceedingly.”

10. Wonderful: Use when a sense of wonder is involved, or at least when there’s an element of surprise, not just to suggestion a reaction of delight.

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22 Responses to “10 Intensifiers You Should Really, Absolutely Avoid”

  • Klownzie

    While everything you have written is true, two problems arises from such practice.

    1) Most people are not used to the real meaning of said words. Write, ”What a terrific crash!” and people will think of you as a heartless, cold person.

    2) Just without the improper use of ”very” the way we describe something is reduced greatly.

    There are probably many ways to replace such words, but they look like ”the best next choice” rather than the word we are actually looking for.

    That’s what I think, at least.

  • DiscordianKitty

    Unfortunately this list misses the fact that the English language evolves. A word’s original sense often means something completely different to the context we use it in today. The original meaning of a word is immaterial. Its meaning now is what counts.

  • Andrew

    Just a query – with words like ‘really’ and ‘very’, and (perhaps) less everyday words such as ‘awesome’ that have had their definitions thoroughly remoulded by popular usage, surely suddenly trying to make them mean what they ‘should’ mean will just confuse readers? Do you think writers should try to force words back into their ‘original’ meaning, or should we use words in such a way as a typical reader (depending on medium/genre) would understand them? I’m unsure myself – I tend to be very pedantic, but I don’t want that to be limiting.

  • Demosthenes

    LITERALLY

    Worse than saying “I am literally starving” is “It is very unique how literally starving I am.” ARRRRGGGGHH!!!

  • thebluebird11

    Ohhhh, Mark…I think you are championing a lost cause here…it seems to me that these words have been allowed to run wild for so long that we will never be able to corral them and let them out just for special occasions. Writers who want to convey these concepts (such as awesomeness, fabulousness, etc) can certainly go on using the terms as they should be used, but they might consider finding some less hackneyed words. If we’re running out, people should feel free to make some up (a la Lewis Carroll).

  • Angela Arp

    I am with thebluebird on this one. I would love to replace these words with another that conveys similar feeling, but with what?
    A Lewis Carroll dictionary or thesaurus might be useful here.

  • Lawrence S. Miller

    A good list, but why is “perfect” missing from this list? Its misuse is rampant and growing, and is my number one pet peeve.

    It would be good to see you tackle the “myself” for “me” usage that has grown so rampant of late. I believe this usage is the result of people having watched too many football post-game interviews of football players who have been forced to suffer being educated in modern, well-funded American schools.

  • Geosota

    The White House is addicted to the intensifier “Unprecedented”. Constant repetition makes me automatically stop to think of a precedent. Usually there are quite a few.

  • Layla Morgan Wilde (Cat Wisdom 101

    These awesome and terrific tips are a wonderful way for real writers to write their absolute magnificent best.

  • Andrew Brennan

    Please note that none of these rules apply to ‘fabulous’ gay men

  • shirley in berkeley

    Mark, you have compiled a most excellently superb list, and I myself for one am truly grateful for your exceedingly thorough compilation. (In future I will try harder to watch my p’s and q’s.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Andrew:

    I thought that goes without saying, hence my omission of that exemption.

  • Mark Nichol

    DiscordianKitty:

    I realize in retrospect that this post may, to those unfamiliar with my previous ones, seem pedantic. (I almost wrote “rather pedantic,” which is rather pedantic, don’t you . . . oh, never mind!)

    I celebrate evolution in language as in nature, but I also idealistically believe that we can preserve and reintroduce earlier, “purer” senses of words, and I exhort writers to restrain the lazy inclination to use superlatives in mundane contexts.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    If you want your words to have the desired impact, you need to consider your readership. The advice in this article is useful when writing for a readership of knowledgeable sticklers/pedants or those with traditional linguistic tastes. But, as Klownzie notes, it may be counterproductive with many other people.

  • thebluebird11

    @Geosota: I LITERALLY LOL’d at your response!
    @Andrew: No problem 🙂
    @Oliver Lawrence: IMHO, I can’t say it would be counterproductive to limit use of the above-mentioned words to their older, purer meanings. I daresay that even someone like me, who is flexible regarding the words in this post (and guilty of overusing them), wouldn’t miss them if they were being rationed, and other, more appropriate words used in their places. And while Lawrence Miller is, I assume, being quite tongue-in-cheek about our well-funded American schools, I do know the difference between a seeing a terrific movie and seeing a terrific crash. I suppose that there are others who might not know the difference, and so, sigh, I would just have to explain it to them…lest they think I’m a sadist. Which I’m not.

  • Rebecca

    Sigh … I do like to use the word ‘fantastic.’ I rarely use ‘awesome’ and try to avoid ‘very’ like the plague. Thanks for the reminder to stretch my writing.

  • Nelida K.

    @Rebecca: I happen to share Rebecca’s use (maybe sometimes overuse?) of “fantastic” in the sense of excellent. But I fail to see why “fantastic” is to be outlawed, as it were, in favor of “excellent”, which should be reserved for something that, “literally” (LOL) excels, in the sense that it is exceptional or stands out among other (options or persons). And yet…
    So, Mark, here I tend to side with @Klownzie’s position, in that language evolves, and meanings shift, and what’s the point in trying to steer words back toward their original or past meanings. The main object of language is communication, and if the chain gets broken at some link or other, this object will fail to be achieved.
    I am quite comfortable using “fabulous”, “real”, “terrific” with the general meaning they have now, precisely because they convey a certain intended meaning from the speaker to his or her interlocutor, and if I were to ascribe their original meaning when hearing or reading or speaking these words, I am certain that some confusion would unfailingly arise. IMHO.

  • Cecily

    I think this is bad advice, despite subsequent caveats.

    Mourn the way words change meaning if you must, but advising people to use words to mean something other than how most people understand them will lead to confusion, or worse.

    Exploring etymology can be a fascinating and rewarding activity, but one should choose words to be understood, not out of sentiment for their previous meaning – otherwise we should all be writing like Chaucer or The Venerable Bede and proclaiming that “nice pedant” means “stupid schoolmaster”.

  • psrai

    These truly fabulous and absolute wonderful tips are awesomely magnificent source of fantastic

    knowledge to learners of this real terrific language…..

    Language is the treasure of society and not an individual. In this ever changing world the language, words and their meanings as well as usage do undergo change with the passes of time; and this phemenon should be accepted as a process of evolution not subversion. It is more important to know what it is to day than what it was in the past. One speaks to convey his/her ideas, thoughts etc., therefore(,) he/she must speak the words the way others understand lest there be a communication gap. Possibility of logical arguments notwithstanding, a few people might have full command over a language.

  • Rafael

    Lately you’ve posted tips on avoiding adjectival and adverbial intensifiers and other such in one’s writing. May I presume that just about all English rules except clarity are out the window when dialogue is involved?

  • Mark Nichol

    Rafael:

    Absolutely.

  • K.Vee.Shanker.

    I think, as new words enrich a language these days, distortion of its existing words takes place simultaneously. It is not happening just to English alone.Though this is regretful, I don’t see any possibility of controlling that. Like morality, everything is getting distorted. Whether we like it or not, we have to respect the reality.

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