“Very” Is Not So Very Wrong

Mark Twain famously quipped that a writer who cannot think of a word to substitute for the word “very” should substitute “damn,” so as to form phrases like “damn beautiful” and “damn important.”  The writer’s editor will delete “damn” and the manuscript will be just as it should be.  (We add that in certain instances, perhaps “damn fine” and “damn strong,” the draft will be improved, a savvy editor will leave “damn,” and the manuscript will still be as it should be.) 

This is generally correct.  Joe walked “very slowly” is weaker than “plodded” or “inched.”  Or “very” can mask an opportunity for a stronger adverb.  Joe’s speech was “sonorously slow” is powerful; “very slow” is tepid.

When writing clean prose, less is quite often more, and less means nixing ineffectual words. “Very” is perhaps chief among these because it’s function is merely ampliative. It has little character or color of its own.

But the exceptions are wider than we might presume them to be.  There are constructions or ways of speaking that work better with “very” included.  “Very well” indicates consent or capitulation.  “Well…” introduces a contrarian statement.

Sometimes “very” is an essential unit of certain English constructions.  “I would very much like to know what she said” is genuine dialog on the lips of a well-to-do speaker.  “Very” is evidently lacking in “I would much like to know.”

Exceptions go beyond points of grammar and idiom. Saying that John “died in that very place” can add emphasis and specificity.  “Died in that place” establishes a statement of fact.  Here “very” suggests more engagement from the narrator.

“Very” can also enhance a writer’s style.  For instance in Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor writes, “The house of Osungbo was built inside a very fat baobab tree.”  Some synonyms for “very fat,” e.g. rotund, seem clinical, too much the Queen’s English.  “Obese” seems comical because it evokes animal fatness and trees have no animal fat, much less an abundance of it.

If Okorafor had cut “very,” her style would be less conversational.  We commonly deploy “very” in everyday speech.  If that is the style of narration an author aims for, “very” can be used to favorable effect.

Or suppose we were to apply Twain’s algorithm to this “Calypso” from the Books of Bokonnon, a mock-scriptural work discussed in Kurt Vonnegutt’s Cat’s Cradle:

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen—
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice—
So many different people
In the same device.

“Nice, nice, very nice” is jocular and memorable, the kind of doggerel we would expect from a mock prophet. “Nice, nice, nice” is catatonia.

Still more striking is the line “life is very long” from the poem “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot.  As it stands, that line evokes the whole poem: desolation, rage, nostalgia, the human condition.  Whereas, “life is long” is a casual adage indicating that there’s no rush; we have plenty of time.  “Very” turns the meaning entirely on its head.