The other day I heard a film reviewer praise a director because he created “incredible characters,” which would literally mean unbelievable characters. What the reviewer meant to say, of course, was precisely the opposite: characters so lifelike as to seem like real people.

Intensifiers and superlatives tend to get worn down quickly through overuse and become almost meaningless, but it is wise to be aware of their root meanings so that you don’t unintentionally utter absurdities. “Fantastic” means “as in a fantasy” just as “fabulous” means “as in a fable.” A “wonderful” sight should make you pause in wonder.

Some of these words are worn down beyond redemption, however. For instance, who now expects a “terrific” sight to terrify? And the most overused of all these words—“awesome”—now rarely conveys a sense of awe.

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