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A Comparative Corpus Study on Intensifier Usage across Registers in American English

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Title: A Comparative Corpus Study on Intensifier Usage across Registers in American English
Author(s): Prior, Milana
Contributor: University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts
Degree program: Master's Programme in English Studies
Specialisation: no specialization
Language: English
Acceptance year: 2021
In this thesis, I study intensifiers, which are the adverbs that either strengthen or weaken the modified word. The intensifiers that strengthen the meaning of the following lexeme are called amplifiers, whereas the intensifiers that weaken the following lexeme are called downtoners. In turn, these groups of intensifiers are divided into various categories. In particular, I concentrate on maximizers, a category of amplifiers, and mitigators, a category of downtoners. The study is limited to the American variety of English. The aim of this research is twofold. Firstly, I analyze the frequency distributions of maximizers and mitigators across different registers in American English. Secondly, I discuss the reasons for the possible register variation between the different categories of intensifiers. Therefore, I conduct both quantitative and qualitative analysis of the data. I use the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) as my data. I chose it for the current research due to its large size of around 1 billion words, as well as the fact that its contents are fairly evenly divided by register. Consequently, it enables the comparison of the studied lexemes across the registers in American English. Furthermore, COCA has a function of viewing a sample in the expanded context, thus making possible the qualitative analysis of the samples. The most significant finding was the preference for maximizers in informal written registers and for mitigators in formal written registers. Further, the formal spoken register, represented by unscripted TV and radio show conversations, clearly preferred maximizers to mitigators. On the contrary, the informal spoken language of TV shows and movies had a low frequency of both categories of intensifiers. As concerns the reasons for this variation, there can be several theories. One of them is the collocational patterns of the intensifiers. Another reason is the stylistic and functional characteristics of the registers. For example, academic prose style favors hedging, or tentative language. Therefore, the academic register has a high frequency of mitigating adverbs. Instead, radio show hosts may have a preference for using definitive, attention-catching phrases and thus are more likely to use maximizers such as incredibly or extremely.

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