‘Intensive’ vs. ‘intense’: the difference explained

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

The difference between “intensive” and “intense” is subtle but important. Let’s take a look at the dictionary definitions of their most common meanings:

intensive = involving a lot of work or activity done in a short time
intense = very strong, extreme

These definitions should help you distinguish between them in most cases. For example, you could say,

He felt intense pain in his shoulders. (correct)
He felt intensive pain in his shoulders. (unnatural)

because pain can be very strong or extreme, but it can hardly be “involving a lot of activity”. On the other hand, one would say,

Intensive farming is responsible for environmental damage. (correct)
Intense farming is responsible for environmental damage. (unnatural)

because the intended meaning is that “farming involving a lot of activity is responsible for environmental damage”, i.e. there is “too much farming going on”.

We can see the distinction clearly in the following list of the top 10 most commonly used collocations with the two words:

intensive: intensive care, intensive cultivation, intensive training, intensive work, intensive use, intensive research, intensive agriculture, intensive industries, intensive development
intense: intense heat, intense interest, intense pain, intense desire, intense anxiety, intense excitement, intense feeling, intense love, intense pressure

It may be surprising, then, to learn that it is more common to say “intense activity” than “intensive activity”. How is that possible?

“Intense” can also be used when something is strenuous, that is, when it requires a lot of effort. The difference is, as authors of dictionaries like to put it, that intense comes from within, whereas intensive comes from without (from the outside). Intense refers to how you feel about the process; intensive refers to the objective characteristics of the process.

For example, when you say that the workout routine you just did was “intense”, it means that you felt it was hard for you, but someone else could find it easy. On the other hand, if you say that a certain workout routine is “intensive”, it means that it involves a lot of work by design, for everyone.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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