Degree Modifiers in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

degree modifier
The house was pretty big and a little ugly. (Tom Knibbs/Getty Images)

In English grammar, a degree modifier is a word (such as very, rather, fairly, quite, somewhat, pretty, sort of, and kind of) that can precede adjectives and adverbs to indicate the degree or extent to which they apply. Also known as a degree adverb(ial) and a degree word.

The degree modifiers are adverbs that normally modify gradable words and answer the question "How?" "How far?" or "How much?"

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The good thing about Camp Catoctin was that it was pretty small overall. It was fairly easy to find your way around, even in the dark."
    (Beth Harbison, Thin, Rich, Pretty. St. Martin's Press, 2010)
  • "Susie Van Berg was awfully pretty, and awfully kind."
    (Patricia Wentworth, Outrageous Fortune, 1933)
  • "Young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined heart is as coals, deep-burning, unquenchable."
    (Henry Ward Beecher, Notes from Plymouth Pulpit, 1859)
  • "I addressed a question to him but he shook his head without speaking and gave me a sort of sad smile—a lost world of a smile."
    (Lawrence Durrell, Tunc, 1968)
  • "His uniform was a little too big, his black shoes a little too shiny, the crease in his trooper's hat a little too perfect."
    (Scott Smith, A Simple Plan. Knopf, 1993)
  • "When a man asks himself what is meant by action he proves that he isn't a man of action. Action is a lack of balance. In order to act you must be somewhat insane. A reasonably sensible man is satisfied with thinking."
    (Georges Clemenceau, 1928)
  • Intensifiers and Downtoners
    "Adverbs of degree describe the extent of a characteristic. They can be used to emphasize that a characteristic is either greater or less than some typical level:
    • It's insulated slightly with polystyrene behind. (CONV)
    • They thoroughly deserved a draw last night. (NEWS)
    "Degree adverbs that increase intensity are called amplifiers or intensifiers. Some of these modify gradable adjectives and indicate degrees on a scale. They include more, very, so, extremely. . . .
    "Degree adverbs which decrease the effect of the modified item are called diminishers or downtoners. As with intensifiers, these adverbs indicate degrees on a scale and are used with gradable adjectives. They include less, slightly, somewhat, rather, and quite (in the sense of 'to some extent.') . . . Downtoners are related to hedges (like kind of). That is, they indicate that the modified item is not being used precisely. . . .
    "Other degree adverbs that lessen the impact of the modified item are almost, nearly, pretty, and far from."
    (Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)
  • Context Dependency of Degree Modifiers
    "Degree modifiers . . . give specifications of degree concerning the adjectives they modify. Adverbs such as very, extremely, absolutely scale adjectival properties 'upwards,' whereas other adverbs, such as slightly, a little, somewhat scale adjectival properties 'downwards.' Rather, quite, fairly, and pretty set the qualities that gradable adjectives denote to a moderate level. Along with moderately and relatively, these degree modifiers are known as 'moderators' (Paradis 1997).
    "Like most degree modifiers, rather, quite, fairly, and pretty are typologically unstable because they do not always neatly fit in the functional categories that linguists have assigned them. For example, quite is likely to be interpreted as a maximizer when it modifies an extreme/absolutive adjective (this novel is quite excellent) or a telic/limit/liminal adjective (quite sufficient), but it is likely to be a moderator when it modifies a scalar adjective (quite big) (Paradis 1997:87). Past research has shown that context dependency between adverbs and adjectives is not always decisive. It is often impossible to decide whether quite is a maximizer or a moderator. For example, quite is ambiguous when it modifies the adjective different (Allerton 1987:25). . . . Similarly, rather, pretty, and fairly can scale upwards or downwards . . .."
    (Guillaume Desagulier, "Visualizing Distances in a Set of Near-Synonyms: Rather, Quite, Fairly, and Pretty." Corpus Methods for Semantics: Quantitative Studies in Polysemy and Synonymy, ed. by Dylan Glynn and Justyna A. Robinson. John Benjamins, 2014)
  • Positioning Degree Modifiers
    - "The word quite [as in the phrase The quite white house] belongs to the word class degree modifier. A degree modifier is positioned relative to an adjective, irrespective of the surrounding words, just as the article the is positioned relative to a noun, irrespective of the surrounding words. We can understand this by saying that quite and white are in the same adjective phrase, and that a degree modifier must come at the beginning of an adjective phrase."
    (Nigel Fabb, Sentence Structure, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)
    - "You're either very modest or quite stupid. Take your choice.”
    (May Sarton, Anger, 1982) 
  • The Fixed Class of Degree Words
    "[An] example of words that don't fit neatly into one category or another is degree words. Degree words are traditionally classified as adverbs, but actually behave differently syntactically, always modifying adverbs or adjectives and expressing a degree: very, rather, so, too. This is a relatively fixed class and new members do not enter it frequently."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Degree Modifiers in Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Degree Modifiers in Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Degree Modifiers in Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).