Learn About Qualifier Words in English Grammar

qualifiers - James Thurber
James Thurber made up this sentence to illustrate the oxymoronic effects created by certain qualifiers ( The Years With Ross, 1959).

In English grammar, a qualifier is a word or phrase (such as very) that precedes an adjective or adverb, increasing or decreasing the quality signified by the word it modifies

Here are some of the most common qualifiers in English (though a number of these words have other functions as well): very, quite, rather, somewhat, more, most, less, least, too, so, just, enough, indeed, still, almost, fairly, really, pretty, even, a bit, a little, a (whole) lot, a good deal, a great deal, kind of, sort of.

Compare their usage with intensifiers, which amplify what they modify and are adjectives or adverbs, and degree adverbs, which can modify verbs and other modifiers.

Some qualifiers have more limited usage contexts than others. In the third edition of "English Grammar: A University Course," Angela Downing illustrates, using fairly

"Fairly as a modifier indicates an almost large or reasonable degree of a quality (fairly accurate, fairly well-off). It can be used more easily with favourable and neutral adjectives than with strongly unfavourable ones, as with fairly honest, fairly intelligent, fairly reasonable, but not ?fairly dishonest, ?fairly foolish, ?fairly [sic] unreasonable: He seems to have a fairly good idea of what he wants to do." (Routledge, 2014)

Writing Advice

An over-reliance on qualifiers is a sign of amateurish writing. To improve your writing, go through your text and find all the qualifiers. Take them out wherever you can. As needed, revise the sentences or sections relying heavily on them to give more detail and more specifics. Use better verbs in the sentences or description to show—rather than tell—what's going on. Then you won't even need the qualifiers, because the imagery or the argument will be painted much more thoroughly for the reader.

"Qualifiers have their place," Mignon Fogarty advises, "but make sure they're not just taking up space" ("Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students," 2011). 

The famous writing book by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White has more strict advice: 

"Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." ("The Elements of Style," 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1979)

Qualifiers vs. Adverbs

Qualifiers seem to work like adverbs—and they'll even be in the dictionary listed as such—but they differ slightly from your basic adverb. Thomas P. Klammer and Muriel R. Schulz explained: 

"Traditional grammarians usually classified qualifiers as adverbs of degree, and at first glance, judging on the basis of meaning and function, this seems reasonable. Degree adverbs—like completely, absolutely, extremely, and excessively—can fit into the same position as the prototype, and they have similar meanings.
"However, qualifiers are not true adverbs; they fail to fulfill several of the criteria for adverbs....First, qualifiers do not modify verbs....Second, with one or two exceptions, like really and fairly, qualifiers do not have adverb derivational suffixes. Third, qualifiers cannot be made comparative or superlative....And fourth, qualifiers do not intensify." ("Analyzing English Grammar." Allyn and Bacon, 1992)