What are Intensifiers?

Reading audio

06 February 2020

The Fast and the Furious films, a series of car-racing movies, often describe a product called NOS, short for nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a fuel that racers use to give more power to their cars.

Racers push the NOS button on the controls, and their cars suddenly go much faster.

Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore the world of intensifiers -- words that increase the power of other words. You might say intensifiers are like the nitrous oxide of the English language. And just like NOS can be useful in a race, understanding intensifiers can help you when you are reading or listening to something in English.

Let us begin with a few definitions.


Intensifiers are words that make adjectives and adverbs stronger.

Let me give you an example. Imagine a person uses the adjective cool to describe a car, as in:

"That car is cool."

That same person might strengthen or enforce the meaning of cool by using an intensifier, as in:

"That car is so cool."

Common English intensifiers are words such as very, really and so. Very is probably the most formal, while the word so is probably the least formal.

The least formal intensifier, so, will be our subject of discussion today.


The word so has an unusual history.

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that so comes from the Old English term swa. The Google Ngrams search engine shows so appearing as far back as the year 1500, the first year in Google's book records.

So has had many meanings over time. We cannot explore all of these today. But as an intensifier, so appears to have been used in the early 1900s - and perhaps even earlier. Then, it fell out of everyday usage.

A little over 25 or 30 years ago, so, as an intensifier, started to make a comeback. Language experts in England, Canada and the United States noted and studied its rise in popularity.

Studies about so

Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts looked at the rise of so by using transcripts of the American television show Friends. They found that the usage of so in Friends was similar to other studies of how English speakers used the term. In other words, the language in the TV show was close to the language of real life.

What Tagliamonte and Roberts found was that so was fast becoming one of the most common intensifiers in everyday speech throughout North America. It was replacing the word really as the top intensifier.

In a separate study, Tagliamonte found that so was by far the most common intensifier in new kinds of written communication – often in text messages.

One possible explanation is that so is much faster to type on a computer or other electronic device. It also takes up less space in a message where space is so important.

Why so (and other intensifiers) can help you

You might be wondering why intensifiers are important.

Intensifiers are important because they often provide useful information about other words.

As we said earlier, intensifiers go with adjectives and adverbs. If you see a sentence with difficult words, you can use your knowledge of intensifiers to predict the meaning of unknown words.

Here are two examples. Can you provide the missing words?

"That engine is so ___________."

"The car race was so ________ to watch!"

In both sentences, one word is missing. But you know that because both statements have intensifiers, the missing words are probably adjectives or adverbs. And since both statements appear to offer a description, you can probably predict that the missing words are adjectives.

The context of the sentences before and after the statements can tell you if the adjective is either positive or negative in meaning. Imagine one of our example statements went on, as in:

"The car race was so ________ to watch! I loved it!"

You can tell from the sentence "I loved it!" that the missing adjective is probably positive in meaning. Perhaps the adjective means fun?

Closing thoughts

The next time you are reading books written in English or listening to English speakers, try to find examples of intensifiers. Keep a record of them and try to use them in your own writing and speaking. But try not to use them too much. Like NOS in the Fast and the Furious movies, intensifiers are best used at certain times and for certain reasons.

And that's Everyday Grammar.

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

button – n. part on an electronic equipment that is to be pushed

etymology – n. an explanation of where a word came from; the history of a word

dictionaryn. a book that lists and defines the words of a language

transcript – n. a written, printed, or typed copy of words that have been spoken

type – v. to write something on a word processor, computer or other electronic device

context – n. conditions that form the setting for an idea or event

positiveadj. agreeable; having good qualities

negativeadj. disagreeable; lacking good qualities

certainadj. chosen or given; some

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