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Ranting Writing

The Very Silly War On Very

This post originally appeared on my other blog, Every Page is Page One

This graphic keeps popping up on writer’s lists and sites, generally to universal applause:

This is very silly, but apparently it is not clear to many why it is silly, so I’m going to put my pedant’s hat on and dissect it.

But let’s start with the premise, which appears to be that there is something wrong on principle with the use of common intensifiers like “very”. This is bollocks. One of the foundations of good writing is to use simple common words wherever they work. Using esoteric vocabulary where common vocabulary will do just makes your writing harder to read. (Ooops! Make that, using uncommon vocabulary where common vocabulary will do just makes your writing harder to read.) One of the great gifts of language is that it allows us to combine a relatively small collection of ordinary words to say all sorts of useful and beautiful things.

This does not mean that we should never use esoteric vocabulary. Sometimes it adds a nuance that a combination of common words cannot match. (“Esoteric, in this context, has a nuance that “uncommon” does not.) But if you are going to use esoteric vocabulary for its nuance, you should get it right. And if you don’t want the nuance that comes with the esoteric vocabulary, you should stick to common vocabulary.

And that brings me to my main critique of this list, that many of the words on the right mean something different from the “very” phrases on the left. This does not mean that either one is always correct. On the contrary, it means that either one could be appropriate according to the meaning you want to convey.

So let’s go through them and look at the differences. Some of these are subtle, but subtlety matters in writing. You don’t make writing more powerful by making it subtly wrong.

  • Very noisy vs. deafening. Deafening has a fairly narrow meaning. It means noise so loud it can do hearing damage, and, as a form of hyperbole, noise loud enough to be painful or annoying or to block out other sounds. Depending on the context, its use as hyperbole may not be appropriate (in other words, deafening may be a technical term to be used only where it applies literally). Very noisy, on the other hand, may mean this, or it may mean noisy a lot of the time. As in, “those children are very noisy”. They are constantly making noise. But they are not deafening. That is, they have the characteristic of being noisy to a high degree. So, “very” here explains the extent to which an object possesses or displays a characteristic, not the intensity of that characteristic.
  • Very often vs. frequently. This is probably the closest pair to being genuine synonyms on the list. “Frequently” does seem to have more of a sense of regularity than “very often”, but that’s a pretty subtle distinction which I’m sure many would not notice or even agree with.
  • Very old vs. ancient. Obviously ancient has a usage that has nothing at all to do with “very old”. One does not speak of “very old Greece” for instance, but of Ancient Greece. Ancient, in other words, means belonging to times long past, and, more specifically, to a particular period of history. Being old is an incidental characteristic of being ancient. The Parthenon is both ancient and, as a consequence, very old. But when we use the word “ancient” to describe, for instance, someone who is, according to the normal span of human life, very old, we are indulging in hyperbole. To say that an 85 year old is “ancient” is to suggest that they were there when the Parthenon was being built. It is hyperbole, and therefore comes with at least a scent of mockery, which may be very inappropriate in certain contexts.
  • Very old-fashioned vs archaic. Despite their being suggested as synonyms in some places, this one is just wrong. Archaic means no longer in use or useful, no longer appropriate to the times. Old fashioned means out of current favor. Ties from the 70s are very old fashioned, but they are not archaic. People still wear ties. Cravats are archaic, even brand new ones. Something might be both old fashioned and archaic, but it might also be archaic and fashionable (if men started wearing spats, for instance). They are intersecting concepts (like old and ancient) but not universal synonyms.
  • Very open vs transparent. A window may be transparent without being open. Confusing the two can cause serious injury.
  • Very painful vs excruciating. Lots of things can be excruciating other than pain. Boredom, for example. The equivalent to “very painful” would therefore be “excruciatingly painful”, except the latter generally means even more painful that the former. Excruciating is an intensifier, like very, only more so, and with a more limited range of use.
  • Very pale vs ashen. Ashen has a much more restricted meaning than very pale. The paint on my bathroom walls is very pale. It is not ashen.
  • Very perfect vs flawless. Err, “perfect” does not permit of intensification in the first place. Nonetheless, the usage of perfect and flawless are different. Flawless means without defect, whereas perfect is commonly used to mean entirely suitable to the current purpose. We often say something is perfect because it fulfills a precise need at a particular time. It does not have to be flawless to do so.
  • Very poor vs. destitute. Poor means having little. Very poor means having very little. Destitute means having nothing.
  • Very powerful vs compelling. My car has a compelling engine. No. There is some overlap in meaning between very powerful and compelling, but it is small. This relates principally to arguments. But we should note that even here, they are not quite the same thing. Sometimes powerful arguments, in the sense of marshalling many facts in favor of a case, are nevertheless not compelling in that they don’t lead people to change their behavior. One might say, for instance, that the case for drastic action on climate change is powerful but not compelling.
  • Very pretty vs beautiful. It is a commonplace that prettiness and beauty describe different kinds of attractiveness. This seems to be true whether the terms are applied to faces or to landscapes (for instance). We may not be able to articulate the nature of the difference, but we seem to agree broadly that there is a difference and that it is worth making the distinction. Avoiding examples, though, since here be dragons.
  • Very quick vs rapid. Anyone find that their rapid transit system is very quick? Anyone describe a bright child as rapid rather than very quick? Anyone describe a swiftly flowing stream as “quick” rather than “rapid”? Quick and rapid both refer to speed in some sense but their realms of usage don’t really overlap that much. And in no sense is “rapid” and intense form of “quick”.
  • Very quiet vs hushed. Hushed means having been made quieter. “The conversation was suddenly hushed.” Very quiet means simply that there is little noise. “The desert was very quiet.” If you said, “the desert was hushed,” it would imply that it had recently been loud.
  • Very rainy vs pouring. England is very rainy. This is another case where very implies that an object has a characteristic to a high degree. A day can be very rainy if it rains gently for 23 hours out of 24. At no point in that day does it have to be pouring down.
  • Very rich vs wealthy. Christmas cake is very rich. Bill Gates is very wealthy. Rich and wealthy have overlapping but non-contiguous areas of usage. Either one can be intensified with “very”.
  • Very sad vs sorrowful. Sorrowful and sad are not the same emotion. Sorrow seems always to be connected with loss. It is the emotion one feels as the result of a grievous loss. You can be sad for all sorts of reasons or no apparent reason at all. You might consider sorrow to be a subset of sad, but it is not a general intensification of sadness.
  • Very scared vs petrified. I visited the very scared forest on my last road trip. Yes, we do use petrified to describe a particular fright reaction: someone freezes in place. But another intense fright reaction is flight. “Why did you run?” “I was petrified.” Hmmm.
  • Very scary vs chilling. Can you say “very chilling”? I think you can. Chilling is certainly used to describe one kind of fright, though, again, not all of them. Someone leaping out from behind a bush and yelling “Boo!” may be scary, but it is not chilling. So “chilling” is a refinement, rather than an intensification, of “scary”.
  • Very sharp vs keen. There is overlap here, but it is minimal. You can say, “the knife has a keen edge” rather than “the knife has a very sharp edge”, but you can’t replace the simpler and more natural “the knife is very sharp” with “the knife is keen” except maybe in overwrought poetry. When used of people you can talk about someone having a “keen mind” but if you say “Tom is sharp and Dave is keen” you mean that Tom is intelligent and Dave is enthusiastic.
  • Very shiny vs gleaming. For something to be gleaming, there has to be light reflecting off it. Something can be very shiny in total darkness where it cannot gleam. Thus “very shiny” is an inherent property of a shiny thing, whereas “gleaming” is something that the shiny thing does under certain conditions. You can certainly imply the property by mentioning the effect. This is a common linguistic device. But it is not universally appropriate.
  • Very short vs brief. No, sorry, brief is not an intensification of short. There is some overlap in their meanings. A letter can be either short or brief, but a brief letter is not necessarily shorter than a short letter.
  • Very shy vs timid. Again, one is not an intensification of the other, and their meanings are mostly different. You can have an outgoing person who is afraid of doing any mildly dangerous activity. They are timid, but not shy.
  • Very simple vs basic. And the same thing yet again. Simple and basic mean different things. Something is simple if it has few parts. It is basic if it fulfills a minimal need. A basic automobile is not simple. Many basic things are also simple. Many simple things are also basic, but they are different properties commonly, though not exclusively, found in the same objects. In no sense is one an intensification of the other.

Overall, then, while there are cases where a word from the right column could be validly substituted for one on the left, in almost every case it would involve a more of less subtle change of meaning. In many contexts, the substitution would be just plain wrong or even incomprehensible. All the words in the left hand column have their appropriate and inappropriate uses. All the words in the right hand column have their appropriate and inappropriate uses. Arbitrarily substituting one for the other will be wrong more often than it is right.

And to bring this round to the initial point. The intensification of common words with “very” is an absolutely common and appropriate part of the language. It may not be the most appropriate construction in every case, but it is no more likely than any other common construction to be incorrect or inappropriate.

That said, it is certainly true that in many sentences you can remove “very”, or any other intensifier (or softener) without loss of semantics. In fact, I would object less (though I would still object) to advice to simply remove intensifiers and softeners, than to the advice to replace an intensified word with some other supposedly (but usually not) more inherently intense word.

Intensifiers and softeners have all kinds of uses in language. They are indispensable for indefinite quantification (very hungry, very painful, very loud). And no, “very hungry” does not have the same implication as “ravenous”. They are also important grace notes with all sorts of uses. Writing and speech can sound very abrupt without them.
Finally, I am not sure why “very,” out of all the intensifiers and softeners the language provides, should be selected for such particular opprobrium. I don’t hear people railing with such passion against “slightly” or “certainly” or “largely” or “somewhat” or “much”, for instance.

Of course, it is possible to provide plenty of examples of the careless or inappropriate use of intensifiers or softeners, but that is possible with every imaginable construct. No amount of bad examples proves the impossibility of good examples. And I see nothing to suggest that misuse in this area is a larger scale problem than other kinds of misuse. Rather, what I suspect is going on here is people, both teachers and students of writing, looking for easy mechanical rules to substitute for the much more difficult pursuit of inculcating a mature writing style.

The war on “very” is silly. Check that: the war on “very” is very silly. Or ludicrous. Take your pick.

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