The Grammarphobia Blog

Intensive care

Q: When I told a friend that a test I took was very “intensive,” she insisted I should have said “intense.” What’s the difference and which one is appropriate?

A: Either word might have been appropriate, depending on how you found the test.

If you found it “intense,” then it was stressful, demanding, and perhaps nerve-wracking.

If you found it “intensive,” then it was highly concentrated and covered a lot of territory in a short period.

Of course an “intensive” exam might also be “intense.”

The adjectives “intense” and “intensive” are ultimately related to the Latin verb intendere, meaning to stretch or strain. Although they overlap quite a bit, they’re not always interchangeable.

“Intense,” which came into English around 1400, still retains that etymological sense of stretching or straining, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So we might describe a high-strung meeting (one that’s a strain) or a meeting that requires a lot of mental effort (one that makes us stretch) as “intense.”

Although “intensive” entered the language 125 years later with some of the same senses as “intense,” we generally use it now to describe something that’s highly concentrated or forceful.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has a good explanation of how these adjectives can differ. We’ll quote the dictionary’s usage note below, adding paragraph breaks for readability:

“The meanings of intense and intensive overlap considerably, but the two adjectives often have distinct meanings.

“Intense often suggests a strength or concentration that arises from an inner disposition and is particularly appropriate for describing emotional states: ‘He wondered vaguely why all this intense feeling went running because of a few burnt potatoes’ (D.H. Lawrence).

Intensive is more appropriate when the strength or concentration of an activity is imposed from without: ‘They worked out a system of intensive agriculture surpassing anything I ever heard of, with the very forests all reset with fruit- or nut-bearing trees’ (Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

“Thus a reference to Mark’s intense study of German suggests that Mark engaged in concentrated activity, while Mark’s intensive study of German suggests the course Mark took was designed to cover a lot of material in a brief period.”

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