If you look up “Don’t write very” on Google – inside quotation marks – it will come up with 76,400 results.
If you look up “Don’t use very” on Google – also within quotation marks – it will come up with 589,000 results.
And if you type in “alternatives to using very” without quotation marks, you get 272,000,000 results.
While it’s “very” doubtful that all 272,000,000 of those articles, blog posts and other hits focus on tearing into this word, it still goes to show you how much-maligned it is.
One of the first results I found in that last search was GrammarCheck’s infographic of alternatives to “very.” It came with the SEO description of, “Is the word ‘very’ really the most useless word in the English language?”
As far as I could tell, its answer was something along the lines of, “In the vast majority of cases, yes.”
Calling a word – any word – “the most useless word in the English language” is exceptionally harsh. This is particularly true when the English language now includes vocabulary like “hangry” and “adulting.”
In Grammarcheck’s defense, it was probably limiting its criticism to words that predate millennials. But even so, I’m much more inclined to agree with Mr. Mark Baker in his January 5 post, “The very silly war on ‘very.’”
It’s well worth quoting…
To set up his argument, Mr. Baker included one of those “alternatives to using ‘very’” infographics. Rather like the one GrammarCheck felt so right about referencing.
He then wasted no time lighting right into it with snarky flare:
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.
... 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 greatest 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.
As he goes on to say, go ahead and use a non-very word if a non-very word would work better. However, don’t blindly assume that a non-very word is, in fact, going to work better.
Because it won’t always.
I couldn’t say if the whole “don’t use very” bandwagon got rolling due to academic snobbery or aversion to repetition.
If I had to take a guess though, I'd say both, which would explain how the movement gets things half-right and half-wrong.
Adopting a mantle of academic snobbery into your writing, or any other part of your
life, is a big mistake. It’s the educational equivalent of covering up one eye and claiming to still see flawlessly.
In most cases, having two perspectives is more useful than just having one.
Where the anti-very crowd gets it right though is how the word they like to hate so much can be overused. The more times a paragraph or page includes “very,” the more off-putting it could become.
However, that’s also true of the word “just” or “like” or even “the.” Unless you’re trying to use repetition to make a point, it’s probably best avoided or at least mindfully limited.
With that in mind, feel free to do a search through your document to see if you overused “very.” If you did, analyze each instance and see what could work better.
But do so recognizing that, sometimes, a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do… even if that means dropping the “don’t use very” crowd like the “very” misinformed group that it is.