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December 9, 2014

How To Tighten Up Your Writing

I’m Having A Very, Very, Very Bad Day

Have you ever taken a hard look at the word very? I’m not talking about the use of very as an adjective, or even the use of very as an adverb meaning “truly” or “the actual fact”. I’m referring to the very we hear every day, many times a day—very as an adverb meaning “to a high degree”.

Here are a few sample definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • Exceedingly (very hot)
  • Exceedingly (didn’t hurt very much)

These are the uses of very that grow very tiring.

What Prompted Me To Write About Very?

At night, after all the animals are fed, I set up at a desk in the kitchen to write. Our family room is next to it and my wife watches TV or reads there. One night while she was watching CNN, I heard Anderson Cooper and another newscaster say the word very so many times I had to stop. I asked my wife to use the DVR and rewind, and this time I counted. In about 24 minutes of airtime, they said very 18 times. On two occasions, there was a repeat as in “this was very very serious.”

Ordinarily I wouldn’t care, but these are professionals, reporting for a major news channel. Can’t they do better than very?

The Danger of Intensifiers

An intensifier is described by Merriam-Webster as:

a word (such as really or very ) that gives force or emphasis to a statement.

During the normal course of conversation, you would miss the occasional use of very, but far too often language is riddled with such usage. And writing is even worse. I quickly did a search of my work-in-progress and discovered a few too many uses of very. It forced me to think about that saying—tighten up your writing—in a new light. The good news is that it’s very easy to avoid using “very”.

There is a quote by one of my favorite authors.

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

Of course nowadays, no editor is going to strike out the word damn, but the point is well taken.

Very, used in this context, is known as an intensifier, but in reality it weakens sentences.

How To Fix The Problem and Tighten Up Your Writing

Very is almost always used by writers and/or speakers to make a point, to emphasize something. There are far better ways of doing that. Here are a few examples:

Instead of saying… Say…
Very hot scorching[1]
Very angry enraged
Very pretty gorgeous
Very clean spotless
Very fast quick or rapid
Very hungry starved
Very cold bitter or freezing[2]
Very stupid an imbecile

I think you get the point. Very is not needed in almost every case when it is used as an intensifier. Take a minute and use these examples in sentences. Say each sentence using very, and then each one using the alternate word. I think you’ll see what I mean.

Here are a couple to try out.

  • It was very hot today.
  • It was scorching today.
  • She was very angry at her husband for cheating on her.
  • She was enraged at her husband for cheating on her.
  • I’m very hungry; I haven’t eaten all day.
  • I’m starved; I haven’t eaten all day.

Other Problem Words

I’m picking on the word very, but the rest of the intensifiers are just as guilty. Here’s a very short list.

  • So, as in he is so short.
  • Too, as in that is too much.
  • Really, as in she is a really nice person.
  • Rather[3], as in he was a rather nice chap.
  • Incredibly, as in that was incredibly cool.
  • Absolutely, as in that was absolutely the best.

There are plenty more intensifiers to consider. Wikipedia has a good list for reference.

Bottom Line

The next time you’re talking, or especially when you’re writing, avoid the temptation to use very. Start with that one intensifier, and once you have that down as a habit, start on another one.

If you like grammar posts, here’s one on a saying people mix up all the time.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction booksincluding the No Mistakes Careers series.

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

  1. or 104°  ↩
  2. or cite the temperature  ↩
  3. used quite often in the UK  ↩

One Response to “How To Tighten Up Your Writing”

  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening. I appreciate
    you spending some time and energy to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting.

    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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