Yesterday I saw a listicle/infographic piece entitled “Replace the Word Very with One of These 128 Modifiers.” The intensifier very is “lazy and imprecise,” says the author, so she provides the reader with a convenient list of replacement words as a means toward less laziness and more precision.

When you are tempted to write “very cute,” for instance, you can consult the chart and see that you should plug in the word “adorable” instead. Before you write “very fast,” you can look at the chart and see that you really mean “swift.” Instead of “very loud,” what you want to say is “thunderous.” 

I’m going to return later to the list of 128 replacement modifiers. But first I want to investigate the value of the word very--if, indeed, it has any value.

You have probably heard Mark Twain’s witticism: “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.” My friend Pete Peterson claims that there is almost never a good reason to use the word very.

The “128 Modifiers” article quotes Florence King: “Very is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen.” 

I am inclined to agree with Mark Twain, Pete Peterson, and Florence King. The intensifier very adds very little lexical content to a sentence.

Astute readers will have noticed that I used the word very in the previous sentence–a sentence devoted to denigrating the word very. The more generous among you will have assumed that I was being clever. I applaud your generous spirit. May all of our errors be errors of generosity.

However, I was being neither clever nor ironic, nor was I trying to make a point. I used very there because it came naturally and it seemed like the right word. So I left it. To make a point.

There are at least four easy ways I could have omitted the word very in that sentence. It might be helpful to walk through all four of the options I considered.

Option 1: Simply omit the word very.

The word very adds little lexical content to a sentence.

This isn’t a bad option. It’s an easy way to get the never-very’s like Pete Peterson off your back. But I don’t think it’s an improvement over the original. I prefer the rhythm of the original, with its extra trochee. And while the main rap against very is that it’s imprecise, “very little” strikes me as more precise than “little.”

Option 2: Change the positive “adds very little” to the negative “doesn’t add much.”

The word very doesn’t add much lexical content to a sentence.

Again, not bad. But does it really feel like an improvement over the original? It’s not shorter. It’s not more precise. All things being equal, I prefer the positive verb (“adds very little”) to the negative verb (“doesn’t add much”). But if getting rid of very is important to you, this is a decent way to do it.

Option 3: Consult the “Replace the Word Very with One of These 128 Modifiers” Chart
According to the chart, the replacement for “very little” is “tiny.”

The word very adds tiny lexical content to a sentence.

I don’t think so.

Option 4: Find another intensifier to replace “very.”

The word very adds precious little lexical content to a sentence.

This choice addresses both of the the complaints I expressed about Option 1 above. It keeps the rhythm of the original, and it is as precise as the original. Also, “precious little” is a tad more interesting and unexpected than “very little.” I probably would have made this edit if I hadn’t decided to keep the original for illustration purposes.

But we should be clear: if “precious little” is an improvement over “very little,” it’s not because it adds more lexical information. Either precious or very is simply an intensifier; beyond that, it mostly serves the rhythm of the sentence.

I said earlier that I’m inclined to agree with Florence King’s assessment that very is “treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen.” But I’m afraid my inclination doesn’t bear careful scrutiny. As I often say, every problematic construction in the English language exists because sometimes it’s not a problem, but a solution.

Here’s an important thing I want you to remember about the word very: It’s a shortcut. I mean that in the least judgmental sense possible. Often when we say some technique is a shortcut we mean something negative by it. We disapprove of people who take shortcuts in business or in schoolwork or in footraces. However, if you’ve ever taken a shortcut while traveling, you know that shortcuts aren’t always bad.

I am in theory opposed to the use (or at least the overuse) of the word very. But I’d be afraid to go through the last seventy-something issues of The Habit and count how many times I’ve used the word. I’m committed to cranking out one of these letters every Tuesday. And Tuesdays just keep on coming. So thank goodness for verbal shortcuts…as long as they don’t cost too much in precision.

Let’s return to that sentiment expressed in the opening of the “128 Modifiers” article: “the modifier very is lazy and imprecise.” Is the word very indeed lazy and imprecise? We can safely limit the discussion to “imprecise,” since “lazy” in this context can only really mean “too lazy to be precise.” (And besides, I don’t see how providing a writer with a list of modifiers to plug into his prose is going to make him any less lazy.)

It is true that the word verycan lead to imprecision. It sometimes weakens prose by insulating the writer from the hard work of searching out the most precise words. My advice is to think of every very as a reminder to be more precise. Consider the possibility that you are using the intensifier to ratchet up your adjectives rather than doing the harder work of ratcheting up meaning by finding the more precise adjective–or, even better, more precise nouns and verbs.

No list is going to help you find the more precise words you’re looking for. “Thunderous” is more precise than “very loud” only if the loud thing is loud like thunder. If I change “My alarm clock is very loud” to “My alarm clock is thunderous” (as the “128 Modifiers” chart suggests), I haven’t gotten more precise. If however, I look at the word very and recognize an opportunity to find a more precise descriptor, then I’m getting somewhere.

My alarm clock is very loud

might become

My alarm clock is shrill.

And then hopefully I’ll take the next step and look for a way to make nouns and verbs carry the freight:

The alarm clock shrilled me from sleep this morning and flung me, unready, into another day.

That’s how revision works, by the way. It’s not about replacing words; it’s about taking opportunities to be more vivid and precise.

Eradicating the word “very” from your prose isn’t going to produce miraculous changes in your writing. The issue is precision. Where the word “very” results in imprecision, it has to go. Where it doesn’t, don’t get yourself too wound up about it.

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