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TWTS: There's a certain intensity to doing something intently

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Sometimes language questions come to us from our own public radio backyard.

A listener recently wrote to us about an episode of Freakonomics that aired several weeks ago. In it, host Stephen Dubner and his guest Robert Cialdini use the word "intensely" in reference to how the media covers certain events.

Our listener thought what Dubner and Cialdini actually meant to say was "intently" instead of "intensely." They wondered if we might look into the differences between these two similar-sounding words.

First, some background. These two adverbs are based on the adjectives "intense" and "intent." They go back to the same Latin verb meaning "to stretch out or strain."

Today, "intensely" is typically used to refer to something that's extreme or excessive. You might find yourself exercising intensely under a sun that's shining intensely. If that's the case, please drink plenty of water.

"Intently" describes doing something with concentrated focus or rapt attention. You might watch something or something intently. Perhaps you listen intently whenever That's What They Say comes on the radio.

It's tempting to make the distinction that "intently" is always about mental processes and that "intensely" is used for physical senses. However, "intensely" can also refer to mental processes. For example, you can feel intensely angry about something or study intensely for a test.

In the example our listener heard, Freakonomics host Stephen Dubner is talking to social psychologist Robert Cialdini:

DUBNER: You make a really provocative but resonant argument that a lot of behaviors are copycat behaviors, including workplace or school shootings, terrorist attacks, product tampering. What should media outlets do about those events? You may say their coverage is dangerous. They say it’s their duty to cover it intensely. Why are you more right than they are?

CIALDINI: Because of that last word, “intensely.” They give us the news. They’re invaluable for that. The problem is when they sensationalize it for ratings.

Cialdini goes on to say that people are learning from the news, and when they see a lot of coverage, it can snowball or give people ideas.

When Dubner says "intensely," it's not hard to see how "intently" could've worked too. Dubner could be saying the media thinks it's their duty to cover certain events in extreme ways or with a lot of attention. Or, he could be saying the media thinks it's their duty to cover things with focused attention.

Cialdini offers some clarity when he says the problem is when the media "sensationalizes" the news. In other words, he thinks the media's extreme coverage, perhaps even excessive coverage, is the problem.

Given this context, we tend to think that both speakers were correct to use "intensely" in this case.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.