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When to use “very”

While editing, one of the words I remove most often is “very”.  In most cases, it’s unnecessary.

Even worse, it has the effect of lessening the importance of something you intended to emphasize.

For example, instead of saying something was “very important”, say it was “of the utmost importance.”  Instead of saying a meal was “very good,” say it was a “delight”.

Why is “very” ineffective?  When used like I have above, the word “very” doesn’t give any extra information, except for a vague understanding of degree.  As readers, people understand that “very handsome” means “more handsome than most,” but your readers don’t understand how he looks.  There’s a big difference in connotation between: “his smile dazzled me” and “his rock-hard abs sent my heart aflutter”.

Think about what you’re really trying to say.  What is it about the detail that you’re trying to describe that makes it “very” <something>?  Say that instead.

However, there are a couple of cases where “very” is correct and useful:

  • When you’re talking about a particular item: “There it was, the very item we’d been searching for: the golden medallion.”
  • When you’re talking about the mere mention of something:  “The very thought of going to the dance with him made me shudder.”

For the most part, it’s safe to simply remove the word “very” from your sentences.  That will ensure your words have the very impact you intend.

What do you think?  Is it better to never use “very” at all?  Or are there other cases I missed where it’s okay?

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One Response to “When to use “very””

  1. X.M. Kreuz says:

    This is one of those… technique vs art things. As with a ton of other similar strategies, you wanna be incredibly careful about turning something into a personal “rule of thumb;” because the intricacies of mood, narrative voice, and characterization will wreck havoc on your writing.

    If you’re writing for fiction, you don’t want to swap out “very” — or other words — if they favor the circumstances. Consider a story written from the perspective of a peasant in some fantasy environment. Would they say “very good” or “exquisite”? Single-syllable words are a phenomenal means of capturing the essence of a character lacking intelligence or education.

    In other instances, you wanna consider the pacing in your words. Taking the example you used: ( …people understand that “very handsome” means “more handsome than most,” but your readers don’t understand how he looks… ) Imagine the sorta mindset somebody may have when they’re opting for such a phrase, especially if the rest of the narrative tends to exude calm, collected, and sophisticated language…such as “exquisite.” But suddenly, the narrative becomes flustered–all the voice can find to say about their encountered company is “very…handsome.” Here, you’re slipping beyond the imagination and touching upon something even more primal. And, if you make those two words into their own paragraph…

    Two words suddenly become far, far more powerful than an entire cluster of gorgeous vocabulary.

    Your reader is left mystified. “Very handsome” certainly implies “more than most,” but the imagination explodes with the attempt to decide what the narrator is seeing. What could possibly be so handsome that the storyteller, this incredibly knowledgeable wordsmith, stepped backwards and could only use “very handsome” to describe someone?

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