Intensification in conversation

Speech bubble: "These puppies are SOOOOOO cute!!!"

The study in a sentence

This study focuses on intensification in speech, including: how speakers intensify in a non-lexical manner, what is commonly intensified, and what are appropriate responses to intensification.

The paper talks about intensification as an "outlier" and argues that even it just sounds like 'emphasis', intensification is in fact "an orderly method by which speakers can create meaning".

"These puppies are SOOOOOO cute!!!"

"Did you see that snake? It was HUUUUGE!"

"And then I was like daaang!"

The question

Imagine reading these on-screen messages aloud to your friends.

  • How would you pronounce SOOOOOO, HUUUUGE and daaang, compared to plain old so, huge and dang?
    • The most obvious difference is probably that they are pronounced more slowly with the consonants and vowels stretched out (that's what the written forms emulate). There are other phonetic differences too, which make the intensified words stand out in talk.
  • How would you expect your friends to respond to these texts?
    • Are there things that they say in return that will satisfy you more than others?

Key concept

Intensification is an example of adding non-lexical meaning to a word through modifying its phonetic production (akin to how a rising intonation at the end of a statement can sometimes be used to indicate you are asking a question: he's coming?).

When a words are intensified by phonetic means, the pronunciation is usually different in several ways:

  • They are pronounced more slowly with the consonants and vowels stretched out.
  • They are louder and have a higher pitch, making them intonationally prominent and stand out from the surrounding speech.
  • The speaker usually speeds up approaching the intensified word, and the intensified word itself is pronounced with tight ("sharp", "tense") articulations.

Intensification serves a particular communicative function —beyond conveying the bare content of the words—and is intended to elicit a certain kind of response.

Why do people use intensification? What are they trying to achieve?

What is the role of the recipient in the exchange? What is an appropriate response to intensification and why?

Sample transcript showing the formatting used in Conversation Analysis


The author looked for instances of intensification in a corpus of American phone calls. He then analysed each sequence of conversation using the techniques of Conversation Analysis.

This means that evidence for the motivations of and responses to intensification is found within the interaction of the conversationalists itself, using features in the speech of the intensifying speaker and the recipient’s response, rather than relying on the analyst’s own hunches and intuitions.

B: Oh god, this course was SO OVERWHELMING this year

A: wow

B: I mean we were in class about six hours a day and then you had to go home and do about twenty five hours worth of homework to get ready for the next day

The Answer (1)

Intensification marks out the situation as remarkable, out of the ordinary, worth telling about.

  • It modifies the meaning of the intensified item in a more extreme direction, much like adding lexical intensifiers such as really and very.

Intensifications are often accompanied by evidence intended to persuade the recipient that the situation is indeed out of the ordinary.

  • In the example, B follows up the intensification of so overwhelming with evidence of how overwhelming the course was, by enumerating the hours of work involved—ending up with a rather dramatic 31-hour day.
Cartoon image of a female speaker saying 'OMG!'

The expected way for the recipient to respond to an intensification is to show they understand that something has been marked out as remarkable or out of the ordinary.

  • This can be done by immediately following the intensification with responses such as wow!, oh gosh, oh my god!

The Answer (2)

Moderate responses like mhm or uh-huh are not expected responses to intensification, because they do not align with the stance of the speaker.

  • If this happens the speaker may go on describing the event, providing more evidence, to achieve the expected response, as in the example below:

A: I've never seen anybody eat as much as he does and he's SO SKINNY

B: mhm

A: I mean the amount of cereal he eats like between meals and after meals

B: yeah

A: and we go through a box of cereal every two days

B: really

A: yeah

B: wow

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Recognising the linguistic features of intensification in natural speech.

Extension task

Comparing intensification in speech with written forms of intensification observed in social media data.

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

intensification > IMD

Meet the author

Richard Ogden

Richard is currently Director of the Humanities Research Centre but has previously taught modules in phonetics and in Conversation Analysis. He has produced a set of freely available tutorials on use of Praat software.

Read the paper

Ogden, R. (2012). Making sense of outliers. Phonetica, 69(1-2), 48-67.
The sound files are freely available to download for non-commercial use.