Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"
tense versus intense in English

Have you heard people use the words “intense” and “tense” in English?

Does this feel confusing because they look so similar?

Sometimes words may appear to be similar, but they may actually be quite different.

We’re going to look at these two words, how they can be used, and how they are both different at conveying your thoughts and feelings.

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These listeners wrote in about this a couple of times, and this is an excellent question that you may have wondered about as well.

Hi ladies,

Recently I’ve heard two words that sound alike, but I’m not sure if they are. I’m wondering how I can use the word “intense” as you use it a lot on the show. I’m also trying to figure out what the difference is between tense and intense.

You have a great show and you help us so much! You give us a lot of strategies for English and also for our lives. I am hoping that you can help with this question and teaching us the differences between these words.

Thank you very much,

May and Gulico

Looking At Tense In Its Usage

This is a great question because it highlights a difference between words that seem similar.

These words look and likely seem very similar, and yet they can be quite different in their uses.

It’s funny how that it can make all the difference when you add “in” to the word “tense.”

Let’s get into this and look at the definitions and various uses of intense first because this is the more versatile of the two.

  • Uptight: The most basic definition of this or way of thinking of the word “tense” is uptight. This can be that you’re feeling uptight either physically or emotionally. This can also be about “tension”, and in this instance tense can be an adjective and a verb.
  • Physically Or In A Physical Sense: Using tense in this way speaks to a physical sense, or often related to fitness in some capacity. For example in a workout class, a certain muscle group should be tense if you are trying to work on it. You may have to tense a certain muscle for an exercise to work. You could feel tense and need a massage–which means that your muscles are tired and sore from working so hard.
  • Emotionally Or Mentally Speaking: This means that things aren’t right, not normal, are strained, or are in a bad place. This is about feeling stress or strain in some way, and it can cause a lot of issues.

Some examples of this last one can help you to see the various ways it can be used in conversation.

“Their relationship has been tense ever since the fight.”

This is to say it isn’t relaxed, that something is wrong, or that it’s strained.

“I’ve been feeling pretty tense because of all my tests coming up.”

This is about feeling stress or anxiety about something coming up.

Understanding Intense In Its Usage

Intense is a word that often helps to convey that something is extreme.

If used only as an adjective then it means that you are extreme or passionate about something.

If it’s a verb it could be “intensified” if you want to use it in that way.

You can think of intense as being something like a roller coaster ride.

You can almost feel intense in its description and use because it’s an extreme.

Intense is typically used to show that sort of extreme or a big reaction or emphasis.

These examples help you to see how you can use them, and what the actual intended meaning is too.

  • Extreme: You may be trying to express an extreme or that something is a lot to take in. You could say “That fight scene in the movie was really intense.”
  • Intense As Too Much: You may think that somebody is too pushy, too aggressive, or just too much. This is when you can use the word intense to describe them. You might say “I like her but she’s a little intense.”
  • Passionate or Extreme: You are using this to talk about something that you feel passionate about. You may do a lot of something and this is how you are going to convey that. You might hear “I’m a super intense reader when I get into it.” 

The basic idea for both of these is something is MORE than usual.

It may be more than you expected or anticipated, and therefore it’s an extreme sort of reaction.

You may feel more strained, more passionate, louder, or more scared.

Intense helps you to capture that extreme or reaction with more impact.

How They Differ

You now have a basic understanding of these different words.

Though they may look alike on paper, they are quite different in their meaning.

It may help you to look at some examples of how “tense” and “intense” may differ.

From above

  • You can use “tense” to say that something is strained or awkward. You could say “Their relationship had been tense ever since the fight.”
  • You can use “intense” to say that there is a lot more fighting or even a lot more passion. You are ultimately saying that things have been taken up a level. You might hear “Their relationship had been INTENSE ever since the fight.”
  • You can use “intense” to express an extreme. In this instance, you might say “I like her but she’s a little intense.”
  • You can use “tense” to say that somebody seems stressed out or just that they aren’t relaxed in nature. You might say about somebody “I like her but she’s a little TENSE.”

The changes are subtle but you have a basic idea for how this can work.

This is such an important thing to talk about and a great question.

You are likely to use both words in conversation, so you want to be sure that you understand how they both work.

Roleplay To Help

When the differences don’t seem extreme, you may benefit greatly from a roleplay.

In this roleplay, Lindsay and Michelle are deciding what movie to see.

Lindsay: “Should we see that new scary movie?”

Michelle: “Nooo I am not in the mood for anything too intense now. How about a romantic comedy?”

Lindsay: “Umm,maybe.”

Michelle: “What?”

Lindsay: “No it’s just that, I feel things have been tense ever since I moved out. Are we okay?”

Michelle: “Yes, no worries!”

Lindsay: “Okay…”


These words are very useful though they are different.

We will do a followup on some more areas of these words, like other uses and chunks.

Today the focus was on the basic question and differences.

Try these both out in conversation so you can see for yourself how they work.

What appears as subtle differences can actually be significant, and now you know how to properly use two common words.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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