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.

Lexical Expander 5: Offing

Word: Offing

Definition:  (1) a distinct part of the sea that can be seen from the shore; (2) a position distant from the shore; (3) in the offing: (a) at a distance but within sight, (b) in the near future.

Example:  Mary collected her thoughts and realized that a confrontation was necessarily in the offing

Rarity:  rare, bottom 40% of words (Merriam-Webster)

Etymology:  early 17th century, off + ing

Word in Use: Light Rain In Offing For Madhya Pradesh And Chhattisgarh”

Why I like this word: The main use of this word is in the phrase: “in the offing;” which is a rather useful phrase for speaking both about physical objects within sight and about things happening the near future. Overall, it is a versatile and useful word.

The Lexical Expander 4: Afterwit

Word: Afterwit

Definition:  (1) later knowledge; (2) wisdom or knowledge that comes after an event, usually too late

Example:  A few hours after the argument had ended James hit upon the perfect piece of afterwit.

Rarity:  Extremely rare, bottom 20% of words (Merriam-Webster)

Etymology: after + wit, late 16th century.

Across languages:  French: esprit de l’escalier; German: Treppenwitz

Why I like this word: This word is both very rare and extremely useful; often in life one realizes something too late. Furthermore, it is the best translation for the German, Trappenwitz, (literal: staircase wisdom), a word sometimes toted as “untranslatable.” Perhaps, those that believed Trappenwitz  had no one word English translation will now be experiencing afterwit.

The Lexical Expander 3: Anteroom

Word: Anteroom

Definition: an outer room that is connect to an inner room, often used for waiting.

Example: She sat in the poorly decorated anteroom, awaiting her appointment.

Rarity:  bottom 40% of words in common usage (Merriam-Webster).

Etymology: 1762, ante (Latin: before) + room

Word in Use: “Despite the ruling, party investigators went into a detailed hypothesis as to what took place in the anteroom between Hookem and Woolfe.”(https://www.rt.com/uk/364172-woolfe-hookem-ukip-fight/)

Across languages:  Spanish: antesala; in use: “Pizzi ratifica a Sánchez, Vidal y Bravo en la antesala del partido ante Uruguay” (http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/pais/2016/11/14/pizzi-ratifica-a-sanchez-vidal-y-bravo-en-la-antesala-del-partido-ante-uruguay/)

German: Vorzimmer; in use: “in eine Kommodenlade im Vorzimmer und wartete ab.” (http://www.kleinezeitung.at/oesterreich/5118569/Wien_Putzfrau-soll-Pensionistin-mehr-als-100000-Euro-gestohlen-haben)

Why I like this word: I think it is a relatively useful and interesting word, the alternative “antechamber” is used slightly more often. I think both words should be used a bit more to befit their rather considerable utility, for example instead of calling it a waiting room why not be more lexically economical and call it the anteroom?

The Lexical Expander 2: Quaquaversal

Word: Quaquaversal

Definition: Dipping, sloping, pointing, etc. in every direction.

Example: His roof was quaquaversal.

Rarity:  Extremely rare.

Etymology: From classical Latin quāquā versus on all sides + al

Word in Use: “presented her Quaquaversal ready-to-wear collection for Spring Summer 2016 during Paris Fashion Week, earlier this week.” via: http://www.dezeen.com/2015/10/13/iris-van-herpen-uses-robots-to-print-and-weave-a-dress-over-game-of-thrones-actress/

Why I like this word: I like the word quaquaversal because it is a fun word to say (pronunciation: kwākwəvərsəl). Furthermore, it is a rather ridiculous word with an interesting meaning. All around it is a rather fun word (it is actually one of my favorite words in English).

The Lexical Expander 1: Centigrade

Word: Centigrade

Definition: degrees Celsius.

Example: Today it is 3 centigrade.

Rarity:  bottom 40% of words in common usage (Merriam-Webster).

Etymology: 1799, from French: centi- (one hundred) + grade (degree of measurement; via Latin gradus “step, pace, gait”). [http://www.etymonline.com/]

Word in Use: “Designed to function in temperatures ranging from minus 32 to 49 centigrade, the Centauro II engine provides 24 horsepower per ton compared to 19 for the old Centauro. ” (http://www.defensenews.com/articles/italys-new-centauro-ii-tank-shown-off-in-rome)

Across languages: Spanish: centigrados; in use: “Termometro descendio hasta 6 grados centigrados en SLP.” (http://pulsoslp.com.mx/2016/10/20/termometro-descendio-hasta-6-grados-centigrados-en-slp/ )

Why I like this word: I like the word centigrade because it has a certain economy to it; it allows one to skip saying “degrees Celsius,” while still being correct (saying simple Celsius is incorrect, it must be degrees Celsius). It also has a rather nice Latinate quality to it. In Spanish one loses the economy, having to say grados centigrados; however, that too has a rather pleasant continuity to it.

Introducing The Lexical Expander

The Lexical Expander will be a series of short, special articles focused on rare, uncommon, and underused words. The format will be as follows:

Word:

Definition:

Example: 

Rarity:  

Etymology: (word history)

Word in Use: (reference to a recent use of the word)

Across languages: (the word in one other language, if applicable)

Why I like this word:

I hope you’ll enjoy this series.