Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 76: A Very Very Very Useful Word

Today, we're debating the merits of a common intensifier: Very. According to most usage guides, the word very is perfectly acceptable in writing of virtually every kind. That said, the word does have its detractors. In his book Writing to Inform and Engage: The Essential Guide to Beginning News and Magazine Writing, author Conrad C. Fink refers to very as a "weasel word" and writes:
"This intensifier … surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss. And in many contexts the idea would be more powerfully expressed without it."

Therein lies the question: is very a "weasel word?" Should writer avoid it? In order to answer these questions, we'll begin with where the word comes from and what it means. Fowler's Modern English Usage has this to say on the word's most common usages:
"Let me begin … by setting down some of the standard, unopposable uses of very. It is most often used with adverbs … and with adjectives…"

And according to the Encarta World English Dictionary, very came to the English language from Old French in the 13th century. The Old French word verrai means "true" or "real." It's not a stretch, then, that the word has become an intensifier that — when paired with adjectives or adverbs — means "in a high degree" or "extremely" as in these examples:
He was driving the car very carefully.
She wore a very revealing red dress.

With those two examples in mind, we'll look at them without the intensifier to see if Fink's assertion holds up:
He was driving the car carefully.
She wore a revealing red dress.

In these common examples, the use of the word very seems to add suitable emphasis to the sentence. And while Conrad Fink's advice is well-intentioned, it may not be appropriate in most cases. Which is not to say that the word should be used recklessly. More than one very before an adjective or adverb gives a sentence a hyperbolic feeling:
The movie we saw last night was very very very bad.

The rule of thumb—as is so often the case with useful bits of language—is to use it sparingly.

Sources: Writing to Inform and Engage: The Essential Guide to Beginning News and Magazine Writing by Conrad C. Fink, Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield and the Encarta World English Dictionary.

Music from this episode: "At the Bottom of Everything" by Bright Eyes, "Let's Get it On" by Marvin Gaye, and "Very Yes" by Bootsy Collins.

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