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BY PAUL F. VANG
I don’t remember where or from whom I picked up this bit of advice but it’s worth remembering.
When editing your writing, watch for the word “very.” It’s a weak modifier and if it shows up, either delete it or change it to “damn,” if you really think you need more emphasis.
It’s a quick and easy way to tighten your writing and make it simpler and stronger. Alas, it’s a word that sneaks into our writing because it is so commonly used. It’s a word that’s overused and overpaid. On the bright side, after writing something and you need to pare words it’s an easy target, unless, of course, it’s part of a direct quote.
Here are what some experts say about the word.
In “Elements of Style,” Strunk and White say, “Use sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.”
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says, “‘Very’ is a useful word to achieve emphasis, but far more often it’s clutter. There’s no need to call someone very methodical. Either he is methodical or he isn’t.”
In “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” Bryan A. Garner describes “very” as “A weasel word … that surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears its omission would result in at most a negligible loss.”
Last year I had a chat with a fellow writer about the word because it made appearances in a story he wrote. I shared the little saying and he conceded familiarity with the principle. Then he added, “I write a weekly fishing roundup column and the bait shops and marinas say they do great business when I report that ‘fishing is very good.’ I don’t think my newspaper would go for ‘damn good.’”
So, who promised that writing would be easy? From the “Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus,” here are options: exceedingly, hugely, acutely, supremely, remarkably, mightily, mega, ultra, devilishly, awful, singularly.
The word “very” has ancient roots in the Latin word for truth and has cousins in French (verai) and Italian (vero). Still, it seems (and it’s worth remembering) when a character in an Italian opera says, “Vero,” he’s usually a villain and he’s lying.♦
Paul F. Vang has been a freelance writer/columnist/photographer since 1995. He is also an outdoor columnist for the Butte (Mont.) Weekly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.