Question from Mural Mahtab in Iran:

What are the differences between these adjectives: very, rather, quite, fairly, extremely, terribly? Which one is the strongest? Thanks a million

Answer:

Hi Mural, thanks for the question. Your question focuses on another rather (or should I say, ‘fairly‘ or ‘quite‘) difficult area of English. Firstly, although these words are often placed in front of a noun or adjective – as in ‘He is a very good student’ – they are not adjectives themselves but are adverbs. To be even more accurate, they are adverbs of degree . They tell us to what extent, or how much, an action happened.

Look at these examples using some of the common adverbs of degree that you have included in your question:

  1. It was a very hot day.
  2. Irene is a rather good musician.
  3. Muktar plays the sitar extremely well.
  4. Pablo and Hector are very good friends.
  5. Some northern countries such as Sweden have terribly long winters.

You can see that in example 1 we have an adjective ‘hot‘ that is already modifying the noun ‘day‘ and we modify it still further by adding the adverb of degree ‘very‘ which tells us just how hot the day was – not a ‘ little hot‘, not ‘quite hot‘ but a ‘very hot‘ day … you see that this adverb tells us to what degree it was hot. And in the other examples you can also see that each adverb of degree tells us a little more about the action than if we simply used the adjective or adverb.

It can get a little confusing when some of these adverbs are pretty close in ‘degree’ to others. For example, if I said

  • It’s quite hot today.
  • It’s rather hot today.

There is no real difference between the two sentences in terms of the ‘degree‘ of hotness that they are conveying. So ‘quite‘ and ‘rather‘ can be used interchangeably.

Another confusing one is the word ‘terribly‘. If you think of the adjective ‘terrible‘ when you use it adverbial you may make a big mistake:

  • He is a terrible violin player.

means that he is a very bad violin player – ‘terrible‘, as an adjective, usually means something bad.

However, if I use ‘terribly‘ as an adverb of degree it has the same meaning as ‘extremely‘ :

He is a terribly good violin player.

The meaning is that ‘he is an extremely good violin player‘.

Note that I can also say the opposite, ‘ he is a terribly bad violin player‘. In both cases though ‘terribly‘ doesn’t have any connotation in itself of ‘badness’ but expresses the degree of the action or event.

As to the place on a scale for the ones you have sent in, Mural, I would say – going from the weakest degree to the strongest:

  1. fairly
  2. quite /rather
  3. rather /quite
  4. very
  5. extremely / terribly
  6. terribly /extremely

If you want to use some other adverbs of degree in your conversation or written English try these!

absolutely, acutely, amply, astonishingly, awfully, certainly, considerably, cruel, dearly, decidedly, deeply, eminently, emphatically, exaggeratedly, exceedingly, excessively, extensively, extraordinarily, extremely, greatly, highly, incredibly, indispensably, largely, notably, noticeably, particularly, positively, powerfully, pressingly, pretty, prodigiously, profoundly, really, remarkably, substantially, superlatively, surpassingly, surprisingly, terribly, truly, uncommonly, unusually, vastly, wonderfully.

Other references:

  1. English4Today Grammar: Adverbs of Degree
  2. English4Today Grammar: Adverbs
  3. Adverbs of Certainty (blog posting)
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