A Very Dumb Rule

Conventional wisdom among writers holds that the word “very” is poisonous, a useless word that clouds your writing, adding an unnecessary emphasis when you could achieve the same thing with a more powerful word. Substitute “outraged” for “very angry.”

I believe the hatred of the word very began with Mark Twain. Who, after all would pick an argument with a literary giant.

Twain famously said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

But, like many “rules” of writing, this one has become overdone. Charles Murray, for example, in his Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, advocates performing a global search and delete of the word. “As for very,” Murray writes, “you may, if you insist, take a look at each occurrence before deleting. But hardly any of them should survive.”

Well, I feel duly chastised for believing that a word in the English language has a reason to exist. Very is both an adjective and an adverb, and sometimes, it’s just the right word.

As an adjective, we see it used (to the horror of the purists) in a sentence such as, “I visited the very school that I attended when I lived in England.”

As an adverb, and this is where the purists come down with the vapors, we see it in a sentence such as, “He was very tall.” A very Nazi would substitute, “He was tall as a skyscraper,” or some other such literary bon mot.

In one of my novels, I had a scene where a new CIA agent tries to convince her superior that she should be allowed to use hand grenades. After showing him that she understood the weapon, she then hit him with the clincher: “And I have a very strong throwing arm.” As an exercise I tried my best to come up with a way for her to convince her boss without the use of the word very. I couldn’t. She was simply emphasizing that her strong throwing arm was quite strong. Well, it was very strong. Take out the word, and the sentence would suffer, with all due apologies to Mark Twain.

So here is the rule that I follow concerning the word very: Use the word sparingly, very sparingly if you will. You may want to restrict it to dialogue. The reason it belongs in dialogue is because that is the way real people speak. A bad report card will always result in a parent telling a kid that she is “very disappointed,” not “quite disappointed,” not “hugely disappointed,” very disappointed.

The best rule of writing is this: Don’t become a slave to a rule.




About Russ

Russ Moran is an author, lawyer, and blogger. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including recreational themes such as boating, how-to articles, law and business. He is the author of Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, published in 2011. Kirkus Reviews calls the book: "A lively,brash,illuminating insider look at the law,by a compelling expert." Russ has recently finished The APT Principle: The Business Plan that you Carry in Your Head, It was published in June 2012. His blog is The Moran Report at www.morancom.com. Russ lives on Long Island with his wife Lynda. They have a five year old shih tzu that they are still trying to house train.
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