Intention versus expression

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I’m not a fan, in general, of intensifiers such as quite, really, or rather.  In written work, they almost always function in the opposite way: rather than intensifying the adjective, they diminish it.

For example, quite gorgeous is a phrase recently used by mother.  The problem is that gorgeous is a strong adjective by itself.  Consider it compared to several synonyms: pretty, lovely, beautiful, attractive. Which one would a woman most like to be described?  By itself gorgeous, is a solid, specific, weighty description.

But when you add a modifier such as quite, it takes a bit of the oomph out of the word you’re modifying with it.  It’s an adverb sucker-punch.  Think about how the meaning of gorgeous changes in the following contractions: rather gorgeous (not gorgeous, but just sort of that way), really gorgeous (it sounds like the writer or speaker is trying too hard to make you believe something), pretty gorgeous (the double definition of pretty makes this one laughable).

When used to accentuate weaker words the change in meaning is much more subtle and therefore less offensive.  Had Mom described the woman as quite lovely, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.  It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a great idea to use such adverbs with weaker adjectives; it’s just less noticeable than with the stronger adjectives.

Bottom line: quite, really, rather, pretty, and their cohorts are nonspecific, and they take the specificity out of the adverbs they modify.  They make the reference more vague, and in most cases, weaker.  It’s better to choose a stronger word to begin with and leave the so-called intensifiers out of the mix.  One strong word is almost always better than a string of weaker words trying to morph into something stronger.

It is important to remember that quite can be used to mean two different things as an adverb: it can mean rather, and it can mean completely.  When used to mean completely, its use is generally not disputed as weakening to whatever word it modifies: “She says she is ugly, but she is quite wrong.”


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