Intensifiers don’t

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Intensifiers — the adverbs and adjectives that writers include to add force to their expression — don’t have the effect that some imagine they might.

Take these two examples:

  1. Dave is a trustworthy employee.
  2. Dave is a really trustworthy employee.

In which of these examples might a reader be left wondering if Dave will be pocketing staplers on the way out the door?

When we’re talking about Dave’s trustworthiness, adding the intensifier “really” turns “trustworthy” from a simple binary (either Dave can be trusted or he can’t) into a spectrum: if Dave is “really” trustworthy, does that mean there are other employees who might be “very” trustworthy, or “quite” trustworthy, or “outrageously” trustworthy? How does Dave compare to these other folks?

Being trustworthy thus moves from an absolute quality into a characteristic that varies by degrees. The intensifier introduces a shade of grey, and with it, the possibility of doubt.

That’s why calling your recent coup a “prestigious award” or describing a trainee in a letter of recommendation as being “highly prolific” is not an effective strategy if you want to persuade your reader of the truth of your claims.

Two options that are preferable to these grey-inducing intensifiers:

  • cut the descriptive term; or
  • replace the description with something quantifiable.

Don’t tell us that your trainee is “highly prolific”: tell us that they have co-authored more publications than any trainee you have supervised in your 15 years at U of X, or that they submitted ## manuscripts last year, or that they spoke at two international conferences and are now writing up their results for submission.

Replace the generic, grey description with some concrete evidence.

If you don’t have the word count to provide the evidence, don’t provide a grey claim in its place. Stick to black-and-white — or, better still, omit the info entirely, making fewer claims but substantiating them fully.

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