Am I the only one who’d be pleased never again to hear or see the word very? It’s the most rampant four-letter word in English – yes, even considering other rampant four-letter words. Very drains life and vigor from otherwise robust expression. Intended to heighten, it merely flattens.
Listen to this educator: We’re trying very, very hard to improve our students’ basic language skills, which are admittedly very low. It has been very challenging indeed, but we are very pleased to report some very small improvement after months of very intense effort.
You think I’m exaggerating!
Her statement would be stronger and clearer without that simpering, say-nothing stinker very: We’re trying hard to improve our students’ admittedly low language skills. It has been challenging, but we’re pleased to report some improvement after months of intense effort.
Media writing likewise would be stronger without its glut of vague qualifiers. Although such words as very are more excusable in speech (and therefore in broadcasting) than in print, we should curtail their use even there. The reason very and its siblings – extremely, totally, completely, really, quite, rather, somewhat, etc. – are useful in speech is that they help us get closer to our meaning when we can’t think of the perfect word. If we can’t instantly call to mind the right word, we fortify the less-than-right word with an intensifier such as very, extremely, totally, or completely. Or we tame it with quite, rather, or somewhat.
Writing, however, lets us review and revise.
Sometimes, dependence upon vague qualifiers is not purposeful, but just a habit. The qualifiers aren’t buttressing weak words or curbing strong ones – they’re just there. The words they modify are perfectly fine standing alone. In such cases, qualifiers are chaff and should be blown off. Stripping gratuitous qualifiers creates a curious and welcome effect: The word left standing becomes stronger in its solitude. Unnecessary qualifiers deplete instead of augment.
Read the following sentences aloud, and see how deleting the qualifiers streamlines, strengthens, and purifies.
Original: When he was alone with her in the darkness on the seashore, he was very happy.
Revised: When he was alone with her in the darkness on the seashore, he was happy.
Original: It was a very ugly house, surrounded by a wild untended garden full of old fruit trees whose leaves lay in drifts on the grass. Its windows were the sash kind and very small, but its front door was enormous, quite out of proportion.
Revised: It was an ugly house, surrounded by a wild untended garden full of old fruit trees whose leaves lay in drifts on the grass. Its windows were tiny, its enormous front door out of proportion.
Original: Although they remembered the playwright as very austere, she found he had a somewhat playful, even rather mischievous, side.
Revised: They remembered the playwright as austere, but she found him playful, even mischievous.
The vague qualifiers in those examples are chaff, a habit of conversation – um, ah, ahem! They add nothing. Happy, for example, is a strong, clear word, but if it’s not enough, overjoyed, thrilled, or ecstatic have a precision that “very happy” lacks. The second example forces us to know the difference between the writer’s conception of “ugly” – a sturdy, stand-alone word – and “very ugly.” If it’s very ugly, maybe it’s hideous? From the description, we guess not; it’s probably just ugly. And if small must be modified, can we find a more precise word – tiny, minuscule, insignificant? Likewise, quite only detracts from “out of proportion.” Finally, why qualify austere, mischievous, playful? Those words aren’t lame and don’t need crutches.
Some words are so independent that qualifying them is not just unnecessary, but wrong. “Completely destroyed” or “totally demolished” is redundant, for example, and “rather unique” is as ridiculous as “rather pregnant” or “rather malignant.”
Sometimes intensifiers such as very are simply inflationary – a way of exclaiming instead of explaining:
Original: The funds for the multilingual program are necessary given how very diverse the district is. Better: Funding the multilingual program is necessary given the district’s diversity. Best: Funding the multilingual program is necessary because the district’s students speak more than a dozen languages.
The final revision is best because it scraps that weary word diversity, adds vital and concrete information, and explains rather than exclaims.
As we see from the above examples, a good test for whether we have the right word is whether it can stand alone. If we describe something as rather beautiful, then that something is probably less than beautiful. Maybe it’s just attractive. If we describe something as very beautiful, then it’s probably beyond beautiful – maybe it’s exquisite.
In short, it’s a shame to sacrifice English’s huge lexicon of more than 600,000 words – words rich in degree of meaning. If our work is littered with qualifiers whose only function is, as Shakespeare wrote, “to gild refined gold, to paint the lily,” we should kick the qualifier habit. Very soon – as in very, very soon. As in immediately.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was writing coach for 20 years. A collection of her Quill columns, Championship Writing, is available from Marion Street Press. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.