Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 60: Intensify

This week on Grammar Grater, we're taking a question from Leandro in New York, who is learning English as a second language. Leandro writes:
I found in the dictionary that "whatsoever" is used to add negative emphasis to an idea you are expressing. What I don't understand is why you would need to say "whatsoever"—is it just used to flower your speech?
First, a little history: the word "whatsoever" in English was once used just like the word "whatever." Here are a couple examples from long ago that use the word "whatsoever" in this way:

The King James Bible, Matthew 7:2
"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

Or Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s:
"There's no workman, whatsoever he be / That may both work well and hastily."

The Oxford Dictionary of Current English notes that this use of "whatsoever" is archaic; in other words, it's old fashioned.

Nowadays, "whatsoever" is defined as an adverb meaning "at all", and it's used as an intensifier. Fowler's Modern English Usage defines intensifiers as a class of adverbs that amplify or add emphasis to a measurable adjective.

A crude form of intensifiers are swear words; a lot of people add these to their sentences to give emphasis. A word like "whatsoever" is a more polite yet still forceful way to intensify your speech.

By example, let's say a man comes to your door and wants to sell you a vacuum cleaner, but you don't need a new one. After listening to his sales pitch, you might say, "Thank you, but I have no need for a vacuum cleaner."

But let's say the man ignores what you just said, and he still tries to sell you the vacuum cleaner. At this point, you want to emphasize that you really don't need it. You then might say,
I have no need for a vacuum cleaner whatsoever.
In this second sentence, you'd really be stressing the fact that you do not need a new vacuum cleaner.

As speech devices that add emphasis, slang words are often used as intensifiers. "Wicked" was prevalent a number of years ago, especially in places like Boston:
That test was wicked hard.

Like slang, intensifiers exist in abundance in spoken language, but the use—and overuse—of intensifiers in written language frequently drains them of their intended effect and can also make your writing less clear. As a general rule, sparer use of intensifiers can help your writing make a greater impact when you do use more descriptive language.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; and The Columbia Guide to Standard English by Kenneth G. Wilson.

Music from this Episode: "Intensify" by !!!; "Intensified '68" by Desmond Dekker.

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