Should The Word ‘Very’ Really be Avoided?

There is a great deal of writing advice on the internet warning people against the use of the word ‘very.’ The reasons everyone should avoid using ‘very’ in their writing range from that ‘very’ has become so weakened that it has no intensifying purpose anymore to the claim that using ‘very’ is simply lazy writing. It ought to be noted that in none of this writing advice do people give a legitimate stylistic or grammatical reason to use their suggested alternatives in place of an adjective modified with ‘very.’ Claiming that ‘very’ is a weak or lazy word is not really a stylistic justification for avoiding it; in fact, there may well be stylistic reasons not to avoid using ‘very,’ as the aggressive use of large words can make one’s writing seem awkward, or like they have just discovered how to use a thesaurus. To be clear, large and complex words have a clear and important place in writing; however, they should never be used simply to avoid the word ‘very.’

Indeed, if one of the supposed reasons to avoid ‘very’ is that it has become so weakened to lose all meaning, one ought to avoid the intentional overuse of words to replace ‘very.’ In fact, the intentional use of replacement words to avoid ‘very,’ does more to damage good written style and language use than the “overuse” of ‘very.’ To quote C. S. Lewis: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Furthermore, many of the alternatives suggested to replace the use of ‘very’ actually lead to a difference in meaning between the original adjective modified with very and the alternative. Let’s take some examples (from the infographic found here):

“very afraid: fearful;” the problem with this one is that fearful and afraid mean exactly the same thing, fearful does not imply a greater intensity of fear than afraid, therefore if one wishes to express that someone has intense fear they could not use fearful in place of very afraid without failing to convey their actual meaning. [1]

“very boring: dull;” dull does not meaning the extremely tedious or uninteresting, i.e. very boring. In fact, dull has more senses than boring and to replace the “very boring” with “dull” could VERY easily (notice that I didn’t use “effortlessly”) completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Example: “that professor is very boring” [meaning: the professor is extremely tedious] changed to “that professor is dull” [possible meanings: (a) the professor lacks excitement; (b) the professor is stupid].

Oh I love this next one:

“very dull: tedious;” that’s right folks, when you want to intensify an adjective don’t! Instead, use one of the possible definitions of the un-intensified version of the original. Dull means tedious! Therefore, it is impossible for tedious to mean very dull, since if it did dull would also already mean very dull!

“Very colorful: vibrant;” this doesn’t work, since vibrant refers to a color’s brightness, whereas colorful refers to the amount of colors or the brightness of something; so to replace very colorful with vibrant is to lose not one but two meanings as one loses both the reference to amount of colors and to the intensity, since vibrant does not mean ‘intensely colorful.”

“very perfect: flawless;” the problem with this is that instead of replacing the phrase “very perfect” with a synonym of perfect, one should just cut the word “very” from the phrase, as it is simply redundant.

There are some on the list that work well like “very stupid: idiotic,” as idiotic means very stupid. However, the biggest flaw of this list is that many of the replacement words of synonyms of the original adjective without adding any intensity. Indeed, to get the same sense out of “tedious” as out of “very dull,” one would have to say “very tedious.” I fully agree that having a larger vocabulary is a positive thing for which everyone should strive; however, the way to get there is not to dispense with the use of the word very and replace it with “better” alternatives, since that is not the sign of a larger vocabulary but a sign of a thesaurus user. Meaning is nuanced and complex, different words mean different things to different people, part of having a large vocabulary is welding it well, not shoehorning words in places they don’t really fit. Perhaps, for some “tedious,” does, in fact, mean “very dull,” but that still doesn’t change the fact that in everyday speech and writing there is a place for “very dull.” If it is the most efficient way to get one’s meaning across, and one doesn’t have some other commitments in writing (class style guides for example), use the words and phrase most fit for the writing.

[1] I am using the definitions of Oxford Dictionaries online.

One further point, despite the widespread belief among people using larger words in writing doesn’t actually make one sound more intelligent and may actually have to opposite effect if overused. Thus, one should use the words one thinks best fit the situation. See the study by Oppenheimer, D. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilization irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly, Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 139-156. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1178.

Advertisements

A or An?

Many people think the rule for using a versus an is that one use “a” before a consonant and “an” before a vowel. However, this is not the real rule. The real rule is use “a” before a consonant sound and “an” before a vowel sound. Thus, the rule is not about orthography but about phonetics. Example: “a unique event” not “an unique event;” “an hour later” not “hour later.”

Note there are some “h” words that can be preceded by either “a” or “an.” This is because in the 18th and 19th centuries the initial “h” in these words was not pronounced. Example: either “a historic event” or “an historic event,” though “a” is more logically correct today.