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Here are the examples of adjectival intensification:

  1. It's quite cold here in March.

  2. It's pretty cold here in March.

  3. It's fairly cold here in March.

  4. It's rather cold here in March.

To me, their meaning seems altogether the same—It's cold to a slight or medium degree, a little more or a bit less— but I doubt about the exact sameness.

To make the question topical, I should explain that it was brought up during one of the numerous wide-ranging discussions on the subtleties of the English language I had a few days ago with an acquaintance of mine. Then, he claimed that all intensifiers, even those in my examples, can be ranked by their strength, and backing his point, he mentioned a book on adjective intensification he had come across when he studied the English Language at the University (not in the English-speaking country) in the early 2000s.

After a painstaking search, I came across a link to a book which is unavailable in the place I live in. When I sent the link to the man, he said that the book's title seems familiar to him, but he's not sure.

So, my question is:

Is it true that the intensifiers in the examples can be ranked by their strength? If it is true, what might be their descending order? If there's no rule for this, is there a customary usage order?

  • You are correct and your friend is wrong. There is no objective ordering. Those words are all synonyms. If you wanted to be objective about temperature, you'd use Celcius or Fahrenheit, not deliberately vague adjectives. – Michael Jun 6 '16 at 11:22
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All words have some vagueness (except for maybe technical words with stipulated definitions).

The four words you gave, quite, pretty, fairly, rather (to which could be added very, really, kind of, sort of) depend a lot on context and emphasis. They are not exact synonyms (there are never exact synonyms) and they are somewhat interchangeable, but give slightly different feelings.

I'd order them very roughly as really, rather, very, pretty, quite, fairly, kind of, sort of, but with a lot of overlap in strength and context and understatement may have turn one more than the other. 'Rather' is certainly more than 'fairly' but certainty fades the closer they are.

And even though two may be very hard to distinguish by strength, each still has its own 'feel' to it that is slightly different from the others. 'Very' is kind of boring and has weakened over the years. 'Rather' is a bit rare (to me) in US English, and sounds a little formal, a little British English.

So you can order them, but that order is not set in stone, there's lots of room for slightly different orders.

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  • This is the answer I've been hoping to find in the long run. Thanks awfully! – Lamplighter Jun 6 '16 at 13:10
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There's no definitive way to rank them - the best you can do is guess, and know that you might be wrong in a lot of cases. It will vary widely. For many people there might be no difference at all. For others there will be. I think your friend was wrong if he was stating that one is definitively stronger than the others.

My take on it would be that the first three are equivalent but "rather" is stronger than the others.

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    I'd disagree about 'rather' being stronger than the others, personally. To confuse matters further, in spoken English the emphasis you put on the adjective can change the meaning too. "It's rather cold" could quite easily mean "it's very cold". Also, hate to be a pedant but if you can't do it here then where can you: 'stronger than the others'. – Michael Jun 6 '16 at 11:28
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    oops, "then" was a typo, thanks. Your disagreement kind of proves my main point - it's totally subjective. – Max Williams Jun 6 '16 at 12:33

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