Saturday, October 23, 2010

Intensifiers are ridiculously easy to understand

This post is mainly a discussion of one intensifier - ridiculously. For a more general lesson on intensifiers, please see my new post here
The Grammarphobia Blog recently published a post where a reader complained about the use of the adverb ridiculously as a substitute for tremendously and gave this example sentence:

She’s ridiculously chic

And the writer of the blog more or less agreed with him, saying:

What you’re seeing or hearing here is the use of “ridiculously” as an intensifier meaning very, extremely, extraordinarily, and (as you point out) tremendously.

And they found what they claim is an early example of this usage, by the writer Monica Enid Dickens:

The gravel drive, where even a tired horse used to jog-trot because his stable was near, was ridiculously short.

(A drive is a small private road which connects a private house to the public road. Gravel is the very small stones sometimes used to make these roads. Jog-trot is a way a horse moves. What she's saying is that the drive was so short that even if the horse was tired it started going faster because it knew it was nearly home.)

But does ridiculously simply mean very, or perhaps very, very? Was Dickens being careless in her choice of words? Is it that ridiculously simple? I think not.

Let’s look first at the word-family connected with ridicule. Definitions are from the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary. The examples are my own.

First of all we have the noun - ridicule:
unkind comments that make fun of somebody/something or make them look silly
It is often used in fixed expressions such as:
He is an object of ridicule in our town
She has been held up to ridicule by the press

Then we have the verb - also ridicule. Here’s Oxford again:
to make somebody/something look silly by laughing at them or it in an unkind way
He ridicules the way she talks, saying she tries to sound like a Duchess

Next the adjective - ridiculous
very silly or unreasonable
synonyms - absurd, ludicrous
Go and get changed, you look ridiculous in that outfit.
It’s ridiculous how much this restaurant charges for a glass of water.
Go cycling in this weather? Don’t be ridiculous!

And the adverb - ridiculously
She’s ridiculously rich.
The watch I’m wearing was ridiculously cheap.

Now as we have seen, Grammarphobia equates ridiculously with very, extremely, extraordinarily, and tremendously. Let’s just look at definitions for the last three:

extremely - to a very high degree
extraordinarily - unexpectedly, surprisingly or strangely, abnormally
tremendously - to a very great extent in amount or level, or extremely well

You can see quite easily that each adverb has a slightly different meaning. While extremely simply states a fact, extraordinarily implies some comment or attitude on the part of the speaker, and tremendously is connected with large size or excellence - in the Dickens example above, tremendously simply wouldn’t work. But it would with the other example - chic. So is there any difference between:

She’s tremendously chic and she’s ridiculously chic?

Well I would argue that there is - if I say tremendously it suggests that I admire her for being so chic, but if I say ridiculously it suggests that I think she ‘goes over the top’, she is so chic I find it ridiculous, absurd, silly even. It’s all a matter of nuance.

There is a very good discussion of this topic at, and I would like to quote them, as I think they put it perfectly:

Intensifiers often subtly suggest to the other person what to feel. By naming emotions within the adverb, the other person has to consider this emotion and hence begins to feel it.

Note - Grammarphobia have now had a rethink and agree that ridiculously does indeed carry some extra attitude. Please see my comment below.

Take a look at these variations on very, very, very. The interpretations are mine, and shouldn’t perhaps be taken too seriously.

She’s extremely rich A simple statement of fact.
She’s exceedingly rich Statement of fact, a bit stronger than extremely.
She’s incredibly rich You wouldn’t believe how rich she is.
She’s excessively rich She’s got far too much money.
She’s tremendously rich I wish I had her money.
She’s dreadfully rich She wouldn’t want talk to someone like me.
She’s remarkably rich So much money, and at her age!
She’s awfully rich, darling I’m upper-class, and particularly like the word awfully.
She’s amazingly rich It continually surprises me how rich she is.
She’s scarily rich It’s frightening to think how rich she is.
She’s disgustingly rich It’s disgusting that she has so much money, and I don’t.
She’s insanely rich We live in a mad world, that one person can have so much money. (And I don’t!)

As you can see, in terms of intensifiers at least, English is an incredibly rich language. Note that these intensifiers that we’ve been looking at substitute for very, very, very and therefore behave like the adverb very. So we only use them with gradable adjectives. If you can’t remember what those are, there’s a good explanation at EnglishClub. For absolute (or non-gradable) adjectives use intensifiers like really, absolutely, totally etc.

Collocation exercise. Some intensifiers go naturally with certain adjectives. Match the expressions on the left with those on the right that you think fit best.
Click and drop - Match the beginnings and endings by clicking on a word or expression on the right (abc etc - in grey) and then on its corresponding box(123 etc). If you change your mind just repeat the process.
1. Mr Kipling makes exceedinglya)fast driver.
2. He is an excessivelyb)easy language to learn.
3. It’s an incredibly c)pleased with my new car.
4. He’s disgustinglyd)expensive.
5. Her wedding dress was ridiculouslye)fat.
6. I’m tremendouslyf)good cakes (from a TV ad).
See if you can think of any other intensifying adverbs to go with rich

1 comment:

Warsaw Will said...

I've just had a very nice email from the folks at Grammarphobia, who on reflection, agree that 'ridiculously' does indeed carry an extra quality of mockery, an element of value judgment not shared by such intensifiers as 'terribly'. They have promised that at some stage they will be changing their blog entry. So hats off to their willingness to change their minds, and I hope I haven't been too rude about them in this post.