On Removing “Weakifiers”

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss notes that in excess, almost anything takes on the characteristics of its opposite. When do possessions become clutter? When there are too many of them.

I propose that we start applying this principle to writing, beginning with the plague of intensifiers that has descended upon written English. An “intensifier” is just what it sounds like: a word that, when attached to another word, is designed to communicate increased intensity. “Very,” “really,” and “extremely” are three examples.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of an intensifier. For example, a paper that earns a grade of B- might be called “good,” while a B paper is called “very good,” a distinction that has a difference.

But we have overused intensifiers. Indeed, we use them so much, and so often, that they have lost their intensity. Even as I write this, I am tempted by specters of intensifiers whispering, Wouldn’t it be better to say that we have “seriously lost the vast majority of” our intensity? Wouldn’t that be – how to say – a really freakin’ cool sentence?

Let’s face it: intensifiers really don’t add very much emphasis. Nope. They really don’t add very much at all. A better term for these words is “weakifiers”: they add words to your sentence, but they don’t have a strong enough purpose to justify their inclusion. Therefore, those intensifiers weaken your sentence. They are weakifiers.

Now that we know what weakifiers do (clog up our writing) and don’t do (add the emphasis we want to convey), how can we communicate intensity in writing?

There are several things you could do, but my favorite is to find a word that has the intensity you’re looking for built in. Recapture those wonderful, rarely-used verbs, nouns, and adjectives:

Instead of “really great,” try “remarkable,” “tremendous,” or “prodigious.”

Instead of “really, really great,” why not “superlative,” “colossal,” or “sublime”?

For “very boring,” consider substituting “tedious” or “wearisome.”

For “very, very boring,” what about “stultifying,” or “interminable”?

If a person “really, really loves” you, put Valentine’s Day cards to shame by declaring that he or she “adores,” “treasures,” and “swoons over” you.

Part of the fun in removing weakifiers is that it helps you to explain what you mean with the vividness that
results from precision. How, exactly, is the task or experience you’re describing “boring”? Is it long, not stimulating, repetitive, lifeless…? A better word choice will tell your reader.

Removing those weakifiers – and adding words that say what you mean – is a quick and easy way to boost your writing’s vividness. I hope you’ll try it today.

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5 Responses to On Removing “Weakifiers”

  1. Pingback: Writing As Personal Development | Writing Power

  2. Adam says:

    I have to say, I’m surprised that I’m the first person to comment on this. I’m shocked that I haven’t seen replies in any of the articles that I have read so far, either.

    I came to this site (which I would consider to be more than a simple blog) from your guest post at Albert’s site, and I am impressed. These are some of the tools that I have been looking for, especially since I am debating with myself whether I should start writing fiction.

    I’m anxious to read more tips like this, and as I make my way through the archive, I’ll probably leave more comments like this one. This post is extremely helpful and comes at a very good time. 😉

    (And yes, I am aware of the irony in the last sentence. Irony is its own reward.)

  3. loren says:

    Hi Adam,

    It’s great to meet you, and I am delighted that you like my site. I am definitely trying to build a community, so I particularly appreciate your comments.

    As you look through the site, please let me know if there are any writing-related topics that you’d like to see covered here at Writing Power. I’d be happy to see what I can put together for you.


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