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Intensifiers and hedges in questionnaire items and the lexical invisibility hypothesis

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JournalApplied Linguistics
DatePublished - Mar 1996
Issue number1
Number of pages37
Pages (from-to)137
Original languageEnglish


The wording of questionnaires has suddenly become a fashionable research topic again, with the claim by Gaskell, Wright, and O'Muircheartaigh (1993) that respondents do not notice-and thus do not respond to-high-degree, or 'extreme', intensifiers in the majority of survey questions. This phenomenon is labelled The Lexical Invisibility Hypothesis. One of the major roles of intensifiers and their 'inverse', attenuating devices, or hedges, is to allow the questionnaire designer to control for social and psychological connotations. If Gaskell et al. are correct, hedges, as backgrounding devices, should be even less visible than intensifiers. The present paper takes the data from a small think-aloud study conducted at the University of York in 1993 and explores how nine randomly selected first-year undergraduates react to six 'extreme' intensifiers (very, extremely, far, full, never, and consistently) and two hedges (seem and tend). The data suggest that (a) think-aloud data can within limits provide valid and linguistically rich evidence of attention to specific words, and (b) there is a need to distinguish between attending to a word and using it to formulate a response. There is evidence that most of the intensifiers are attended to by half or more of the subjects, but the hedges (apart from one example of seem), along with never and consistently, do seem to be more 'invisible'.

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