15 April 2013 - 6:15 pm

Very: Bad

Go crazy with the cutting! Be ruthless! (Picture by melemel)

Go crazy with the cutting! Be ruthless!
(Picture by melemel)

There are some words that creep into our writing while we’re not looking. I’ve already talked about one of my bugbears; now it’s time to talk about another: quantifying adjectives or modifiers.

By this, I mean words like ‘very’, ‘some’, ‘a little’, ‘a lot’, ‘a bit’… you get the idea.

As a technical writer, I naturally lean towards precision. These kinds of quantifying modifiers offer more precision than bald nouns. “It’s a little cold out.” “He was very handsome.” “She shivered a bit.” All of these statements convey more of the image in my head than if they were missing those modifiers (“It’s cold out.” “He was handsome.” “She shivered.”)

But that doesn’t mean that those words belong in the sentence. It doesn’t mean that the sentence is the best that it can be.

As a rule of thumb, modifiers like these (and adjectives and adverbs) usually can (and should) be avoided by using a better word. For the purposes of this post, I’m focussing on the quantifying modifiers.

Why should they be avoided? Because they weaken the language. They’re fluffy, softening the edges of the statement and blunting the writing.

In my own writing, I tend to see it as hedging. I’ll read a sentence with a quantifying modifier in it and think, ‘it needs more confidence. No hedging; just say what it means.’ I strive to find a stronger way to phrase the message; sometimes it’s removing the modifier and letting it simply be “cold out”, and sometimes it’s finding a better word to describe what’s in my head.

What’s worse is that some of these modifiers may have the opposite effect to the one you’re going for. ‘Very’ has been accused of lessening the importance of the word it is modifying and trying to emphasise. Also, for me, it tends to sounds childish (by that, I mean the sort of thing you’d find in a children’s book). When reading something aimed at adults, I find it can be jarring.

So what are some of the things we can do? Back to our examples:

  • For “a little cold”, is “chilly” a better way to put it?
  • “Drop-dead gorgeous” works for “very handsome”, or maybe even just “gorgeous”. Alternatively, describe more about what makes him so handsome and let the reader fill in the blank.
  • “She shivered a bit” could be written as “she trembled”, or a better adjective might be used: “She shivered lightly.” Alternatively, work it into something more evocative: “She tried to ignore the shiver that moved through her as the spider crawled over her toes.”

What if there’s no good alternative? What if it’s exactly what we want to say? Well, no rule in writing is absolute. Sometimes, these phrases mean exactly what we want them to mean.

But challenge them. Make them earn their place. Your writing will be stronger for it!

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