Tag Archives: intensifiers

Steven Pinker

Paradoxically, intensifiers like very, highly, and extremely also work like hedges. They not only fuzz up a writer’s prose but can undermine his intent. If I’m wondering who pilfered the petty cash, it’s more reassuring to hear Not Jones; he’s an honest man than Not Jones; he’s a very honest man. The reason is that unmodified adjectives and nouns tend to be interpreted categorically: honest means “completely honest,” or at least “completely honest in the way that matters here” (just as Jack drank the bottle of beer implies that he chugged down all of it, not just a sip or two). As soon as you add an intensifier, you’re turning an all-or-none dichotomy into a graduated scaled. True, you’re trying to place your subject high on the scale—say, an 8.7 out of 10—but it would have been better if the reader were not considering his relative degree of honesty in the first pace. That’s the basis for the common advice (usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to “substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”—though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, New York, 2014