In Defense of the Humble “Very”

As a writer, I find the three-quarters educated the bane of my existence.  Thinking that they know better than full-time practitioners, on the basis of some strictures against this word or that acquired in Miss Gibson’s or Mr. Thorne’s Grade 9 English class, they make writing into a slalom course or even a minefield—and lose sight of the bigger picture.  The strictures of some of those three-quarters educated against the humble but useful word “very” are an excellent case in point!

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Though it has served writers of English well—I almost said “very well”—for centuries, the humble adjective “very” is held in disdain, if not outright contempt, by no small number of them.  Some time back, in a Facebook interval between political rants and quizzes designed to reveal what colour one was in a previous life, I read a lengthy post dedicated to ways of ridding one’s vocabulary of the word.  After a brief introduction, the post consisted of a list of phrases including “very” on the left-hand side, and on the right, single words which could replace such phrases.  For “very cold,” one could substitute “frigid.”  For “very bad,” one could substitute “abominable” or “egregious.”  “Very stupid” could be replaced by “imbecilic.”  Etc., etc.

Up to a certain point, I take the point.  The word “very” can become, well, very tiresome, particularly if it is overused, or if it serves as a substitute for all other adjectives and adverbs.  When used to the exclusion of all other modifying words, “very” can create the impression—which is sometimes not mistaken—that the author is rather simple-minded.  In one sense, the authors of the aforementioned Facebook post were absolutely right.  There is almost always a more specific word that can be used instead of “very” this or “very” that.

But banish the word altogether? That seems just a bit much.  While it’s true that there is almost always a more precise substitute for “very” this or “very” that, such substitute phrases are not without their own drawbacks.  Most notably, those phrases tend to call more attention to themselves than would the humble “very.” Suppose we are talking about an error that a student has made on a law school exam.  If the student has made a “very serious” error, then he or she may be disqualified from further consideration on that particular question.  But if the question is hard enough or students have been deficient enough in their study, his or her error may not in any way stand out.  It may be that a dozen other students will be found to have committed the same error.  An error can certainly be serious without being unusual.

If, on the other hand, the student has made an “egregious” error, then that error will stand out.  By definition, it must, since “egregious” means conspicuously bad.  If the student’s error is one committed by a quarter of the class, it doesn’t make much sense to describe it as “egregious,” no matter how bad that error is.  The term “egregious” also has a slightly official connotation to it.  “Egregious” errors are apt to be those which justify awarding a failing grade to a student or administering discipline to a member of a profession.

We may also not wish to call all that much attention to the student’s error.  When an educated reader comes to the word “egregious,” her mental jaw is likely to drop.  The mere sight of the word is likely to make her re-read the sentence two or three times.  Often, we don’t want readers to stop and re-read a particular word or phrase.  We would prefer that they simply note it, and keep reading.

Here’s an example.  In a short story I wrote a good many years ago, I referred to a dancing school’s piano player as someone who “played very badly on a piano it was against anyone’s religion to have tuned.”  (The dancing school was conducted in a church hall).  Does it make sense, here, to describe the man’s playing as “egregiously bad,” or even “abominable”?  I don’t think so.  What I was primarily concerned with here was the fact that the instrument was out of tune, and had been for years.  Also, in fairness to the unfortunate pianist, while he was no Oscar Peterson, he might have risen to something approaching mediocrity had he been presented with a presentable instrument on which to exercise his skills, such as they were.  Beyond that—also in fairness to the poor man—I don’t really know enough about music to know whether his playing was outstandingly bad or just run-of-the-mill bad.  Not knowing, I figured it made more sense to give him the benefit of the doubt.

It is the mark of the truly precise thinker and writer to know the limitations of his or her knowledge.  To replace the humble “very” with a more precise word such as “abominable” or “egregious” would, in this case, be using a degree of precision beyond the author’s knowledge, in addition to (as we have already noted) calling unwanted attention to a simple but relatively unimportant fact.  Outside of formal legal or academic contexts, the word “egregious” seems to strut like a peacock.  The humble “very,” on the other hand, like a mildly embarrassed latecomer to a concert, slips quietly into its place and disappears.  Often this is just what we want it to do.

But why re-invent the wheel?  The issue has already been covered—dare I say far more elegantly than it would ever be by yours truly—by the English lexicographer and stylistic authority H.W. Fowler.  I refer particularly to Fowler’s delightful essay on “Elegant Variation” in his Modern English Usage.  Granted, the two contexts are not exactly the same.  Fowler is talking about writers who invent endless substitutes rather than repeating a word.  I am talking about writers who produce endless synonyms rather than use a common, perhaps somewhat trite word.  But the basic point is the same.  As my dear friend Harold Tausch has so often said, “Why be a slave to variety?”  Just as attempts to avoid repeating a word within the same sentence or paragraph can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on repetition, so attempts to substitute more specific, gaudier, more rhetorical substitutes for “very” can lead to far greater problems than the slight dullness and monotony attendant on use of that word.

As what we might refer to as a simple intensifier, “very” serves pretty much the same purpose in writing as black pepper does in the kitchen.  It heats things up a bit without imparting any precise flavour of its own.  It adds a bit of interest without calling undue attention to itself (except in cases of severe overuse).  Granted, anyone who thinks of himself as any sort of cook would be embarrassed to admit he kept only black pepper in his spice cabinet.  But even the most sophisticated cooks, people with six dozen different spices in their cabinets, are likely to enjoy many standard dishes seasoned with nothing more than a bit of black pepper.

There are reasons why most of us keep pepper shakers on our tables, but not shakers containing cardamom or chili powder.  Similarly, there are reasons why experienced writers generally use “very” far more often than they do its longer, gaudier, and more precise substitutes.  “Very” ups the ante a bit without going into excessive detail or calling too much attention to itself.  More than enough reason for it to maintain an honoured place in the writer’s toolkit.

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