Pretty Good or Really Good? How to Use Intensifiers in American English

I’m pretty sure you’re going to find this video really interesting. We’re going to talk about a fairly challenging subject which many non-native speakers find very confusing.

If you’re not really that confident using intensifiers like the ones I just mentioned, this lesson will be pretty helpful!

In this article and video, we’re going to discuss intensifiers, which are extremely common in everyday, natural speech.

We’ll also talk about how to stress intensifiers and how we can clarify what we mean by using different intonation patterns.


What Are Intensifiers?

First things first, what are intensifiers?

Intensifiers are adverbs that we add to adjectives or other adverbs in order to make them stronger or more intense.

However, some intensifiers actually weaken or limit the adjective or adverb, which we’ll talk about in just a moment.

(The technical term for intensifiers that weaken or limit an adjective are mitigators, but I have never heard anyone use this word in real-life.)

Intensifiers can add more clarity or specificity to your meaning when you use certain adjectives or adverbs.

In writing, you probably want to choose a more precise word, but we’re talking about how people use intensifiers in everyday speech.

That’s why we’ll focus on common adjectives that you probably use on a regular basis.


How to Stress Intensifiers

Before we get started, let’s talk about how to stress intensifiers.

Because these are intensifiers and they add additional meaning, we tend to stress them in order to really emphasize that we are strengthening or weakening the adjective or adverb.

You can hear what I mean by listening to how I stress the examples of intensifiers.


Common Intensifiers in American English

Let’s start by identifying the middle of the range, which is the adjective or adverb all by itself:

  • This game is easy.
  • That movie was good.
  • The news is exciting.
  • The book is interesting.

In these examples, we’re using the dictionary definition of these adjectives.

If we want to strengthen the adjective, we add the word “really“:

  • This game is really easy.
  • That movie was really good.
  • The news is really exciting.
  • The book is really interesting.

“Really” is a more natural way to say “very,” and you’ll hear it all the time when listening to native speakers.

As you can hear, we tend to stress the intensifier in order to express a stronger emotion or feeling:

  • This game is REALLY easy.
  • That movie was REALLY good.
  • I’m REALLY tired.
  • The test was REALLY difficult.

Of course, you can use the word “very” to intensify the adjective. I would say “very” is a degree stronger than “really.” Here are some examples:

  • The news is very exciting.
  • The book is very interesting.
  • We’re very happy.
  • They’ll be finished very soon.

In natural speech, you’ll often hear people substitute the word “so” for “very.”

We stress the word “so” by making it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, and really holding that vowel sound:

  • We’re so happy.
  • This book is so interesting.
  • I’m so tired.
  • That’s so exciting.

For an even stronger version, you can add the word “extremely”:

  • We’re extremely busy.
  • That test was extremely difficult.
  • The problem is extremely complicated.
  • I’m extremely tired.

Instead of using the word “extremely,” people may choose a stronger, more intense adjective.

For example, instead of saying “I’m extremely tired,” I would probably say “I’m exhausted.”

I might say “That test was impossible” instead of saying “That test was extremely difficult.”


Pay Attention to Intensifiers Commonly Used with Certain Adjectives

Beyond that, you’ll start to notice that certain intensifiers are more common with certain adjectives.

Pay attention to how native speakers use these intensifiers and which adjectives they choose to emphasize how they feel.

This is why it’s important to learn words in chunks and notice collocations, or words that go together.

Some adjectives aren’t commonly used with certain intensifiers, even if grammatically it makes sense.

To sound natural, you have to listen carefully and pay attention to what you hear people saying.

(For some examples of intensifiers that are commonly paired with certain adjectives, check out this article on emphatic expressions and strong collocations.)


How to Use “Pretty” as an Intensifier in American English

Now let’s talk about intensifiers that weaken or lessen the strength of these adjectives (also called mitigators).

Let’s start with the word “pretty.” This is the word that is often most confusing for non-native speakers.

When we use “pretty” with an adjective, we’re toning down the adjective. The adjective by itself would be stronger!

The word “pretty” actually limits or weakens the adjective.

“Pretty” usually means somewhat, so-so, just about average, okay.

For example, if you say “That movie was pretty good,” you’re saying “It’s okay.”

You’re basically expressing a noncommittal attitude.

You’re either hesitating about giving a negative opinion, or you’re just not interested in being too enthusiastic.

If you’re trying to give someone a compliment, saying that it’s “pretty good” can actually make them feel like they could have done better.

If you say, “I’m pretty happy,” it can sound like you’re not 100 percent certain that you’re actually happy.

Same thing with “I’m pretty sure this is the right way” – this doesn’t make me feel confident that you know this is the right way!

If I say something is “pretty common,” it may not be that common.

Of course, context matters, and your intonation will help clarify your meaning.


Using “Pretty” to Downplay or Understate How You Feel

There’s a big difference between saying “That’s pretty good…” with intonation that expresses hesitation, or “That’s pretty good!” with intonation that expresses more enthusiasm.

On top of that, this word is tricky because we often use “pretty” for effect in order to understate or downplay how we actually feel.

If you say “That test was pretty easy,” you may be trying not to insult the person who made the test by saying something like “That test was ridiculously easy.”

Or you may not want to make the other person feel bad if they thought the test was difficult.

If you’ve just given someone amazing news and they say, “That’s pretty exciting” with a big smile on their face, they’re probably understating how they actually feel.

Maybe they don’t want to show off how they feel because someone else might feel bad, or they’re making a joke because we both know that they actually feel overjoyed.

Or if someone says to me, “Wow, you must be exhausted after all of that travel,” and I respond, “Yeah, I’m pretty tired,” I’m basically restating the obvious and downplaying how tired I actually feel.

If you hear someone use “pretty” in this way, consider all of the other information you got during the conversation to interpret what they mean.

For example, when we add “pretty” for effect, it will sound something like this:

  • That’s pretty cool!
  • That’s pretty interesting!
  • That’s pretty exciting!

(You’ll need to watch the video to hear the positive, enthusiastic intonation.)

As you can hear, my intonation is different than the versions where I’m hesitating:

  • That’s pretty good…
  • I’m pretty sure…
  • That’s pretty difficult…

(In the video, you can hear these said with noncommittal, uncertain intonation.)

Once again, intonation matters.

We often use the word “kinda,” the reduction of “kind of,” as well as the word “sorta,” the reduction of “sort of” in casual speech in order to express the same meaning as “pretty.”

But I want you to remember that these words aren’t very precise, and they sound a little noncommittal.

You want to use them in appropriate situations, probably not in professional or academic situations, and definitely not in writing.


Other Common Mitigators in American English

Next, let’s move another step down and talk about the word “fairly.”

You’ll hear “fairly” from time to time, although I think the other intensifiers are more common.

Fairly also means so-so or somewhat and limits the adjective.

We often use the word “fairly” when we don’t want to scare the person. It’s an example of hedging, or when you don’t want to state how you feel directly for whatever reason.

For example, you might say:

  • The test was fairly difficult.
  • The problem is fairly complicated.
  • I’m fairly certain that we’re going to finish on time.

I think “fairly” sounds a little more formal than “pretty,” so you’ll probably hear it in more professional situations.

The last intensifier that we’re going to look at is “not really.”

We often use “not really” followed by “that” to weaken the adjective even further.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • I’m not really sure.
  • They’re not really happy.
  • That movie is not really that good.
  • This book is not really that interesting.

Once again, you can hear that my intonation is showing a less intense emotion.

Basically, I’m expressing the opposite of the original adjective.

If I felt enthusiastic about my opinion, I would say “This book is really interesting.” But because I don’t feel that enthusiastic, I say, “This book is not really that interesting.”

I can show that I’m a little bored with my intonation: This book is not really that interesting.


Intensifiers Add Additional Meaning to Adjectives and Adverbs

As you can see, intensifiers are a powerful way to add additional meaning to your adjectives, especially when you use them with the right intonation.

Let’s review the intensifiers we talked about today from weakest to strongest:

  • not really or not really that (weakest)
  • fairly
  • pretty
  • the adjective by itself
  • really
  • very, and
  • extremely (strongest).

Of course, there are many more intensifiers that you’ll hear people using.

Try to identify how the person feels by paying attention to the context and the emotion they’re expressing through their intonation.

Notice which intensifiers you hear with particular adjectives and take notes.

There aren’t any strict rules, but you’ll start to notice patterns that will help you use them more naturally.

Here are a few more examples:

  • We’re absolutely thrilled.
  • The meal was completely ruined.
  • He was seriously injured.
  • The campaign was highly successful.

You can always search Google to check and see if these adjectives are commonly used together.

Here’s a trick: put the words together inside quotation marks. This tells Google that you want to look for the two words together.

And remember, be careful about how you use pretty when giving someone a compliment.

Be sure to choose the intensifier that best expresses your meaning.


Your Turn

For more practice, try using one or more of these intensifiers in an example in the comments.

I’ll be sure to let you know how you did!

For more practice with how to use intonation to express your meaning in English, consider joining the Intonation Clinic. You’ll get more control over your pitch and learn how to express your meaning through your tone of voice.

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