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Common Adverbs in Conversation: Amplifiers, Downtoners

From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

Imagine you are at a business meeting.

You have just presented a plan to your business partners. They want to give suggestions for how to make your plan better.

The conversation might sound like this:

A: I really like your plan!

B: Yes, it's pretty good … but it needs a little revising.

A: Of course, you did a very good job. But you might need to consider a few more points.

B: Yes, it will probably be more effective if you highlight the staffing requirements and expand on the budget.

Whether you like business or not, this conversation gives you important grammar information that you can use in just about any situation.

In particular, the exchange offers examples of some of the most important adverbs that you will hear in everyday speech.

This week, we will explore special adverbs that increase or decrease the force of a statement. These adverbs are sometimes called amplifiers or downtoners.*

What are adverbs? What are amplifiers?

Adverbs are words that modify, or change, the meaning of adjectives, verbs, and sometimes entire sentences. They are often used to show time, a way of doing something, place, or degree – a measure of something.

Some kinds of adverbs act as amplifiers. The word amplify means to make something stronger. So these amplifiers make the meaning of an adjective or sentence stronger.

In American English, amplifiers have three common uses: increasing intensity, expressing certainty and showing precision. This information comes from Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber, two experts on English grammar.

Words such as really and very are among the most common that increase the intensity of a statement. They usually modify an adjective.

Take the adjective good, for example. Imagine you are trying some food that your friends cooked.

Perhaps you want to tell them, "This food is good."

You could increase the intensity of your statement by using the word very:

"This food is very good."

You could express certainty by using an amplifier such as definitely:

"This is definitely the best food I've ever had."

Or you could use an amplifier to show precision:

"At exactly 5:13 p.m. on February 6th, I ate the best food I've ever had in my life!"

What are downtoners?

Other kinds of adverbs act as downtoners. Downtoners are the opposite of amplifiers. They reduce the force of a statement or express doubt. In other words, they set the tone of a statement. You can remember the term 'downtoner' by thinking about what it does: toning down a statement.

Downtoners have three common functions: reducing intensity, expressing doubt or showing imprecision. Three common downtoners in conversational English are pretty, maybe and probably, say Conrad and Biber.

How can you use downtoners to change the meaning of the statement?

Take our earlier example: "This food is good."

If you wanted to reduce the intensity of your statement, you could say:

"This food is pretty good."

You could show doubt, even raise questions, by saying:

"This is maybe the best food I've ever had."


"This is probably the best food I've ever had."

These statements express someone’s opinion about the food. But they are not as strong as the example sentences that use amplifiers. In other words, saying "This food is pretty good" is not as forceful as saying, "This food is really good."

Amplifiers and downtoners in a conversation

So what does this discussion of food have to do with the exchange we heard at the beginning of this report?

Let's think back to the business conversation:

A: I really like your plan!

B: Yes, it's pretty good … but it needs a little revising.

A: Of course, you did a very good job, but you might need to consider a few more points.

B: Yes, it will probably be more effective if you highlight the staffing requirements and expand on the budget.

You might notice that one of the speakers uses amplifiers such as really and very. She is using these words to give more force to her statement. She is probably more excited about the business plan.

The second speaker uses downtoners – the words pretty and probably, for example. So you might suspect that he is more guarded about the plan. Maybe he has doubts that the new plan will be better.

The amplifiers and downtoners they use are also among the most common ones that you will hear in American English. These words are useful in a number of settings. They are polite and acceptable in almost any situation.

Amplifiers and downtoners in writing

Remember this: the amplifiers and downtoners we have discussed today are common in conversation.

Different amplifiers and downtoners are more common in writing. For example, you are more likely to read words such as indeed, certainly, or approximately than you are to hear them in everyday conversation.

If you use these amplifiers and downtoners in conversation, your speech will take on a very official sound. While that might be a good idea in a formal presentation or speech, it might not be the best choice for an everyday conversation.

Amplifiers and downtoners are not always necessary to use in a sentence. But when you see or hear them, you are getting information about the thoughts and feelings of another person. You are learning about how strongly they feel about something.

And that's the end of this really long report!

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm John Russell.

*These are also often called qualifiers.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

revise – v. to make changes especially to correct or improve (something)

staff – n. the people who make a business or organization do what it does

amplifier – n. grammar an adverb that increases the force of a statement

downtoner – n. grammar an adverb that decreases the force of a statement

function – n. the special purpose or activity for which a thing exists or is used

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

highlight – v. to direct attention to (someone or something)

grammar – n. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language

particular – n. special or unusual

adverb – n. a word that describes a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a sentence and that is often used to show time, manner, place, or degree

certainty – n. something that is certain : a fact about which there is no doubt

precision – n. exactness or accuracy

imprecision – n. the opposite of precision

doubt – n. a feeling of being uncertain or unsure about something

tone – n. a quality, feeling, or attitude expressed by the words that someone uses in speaking or writing

polite – adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people