The Weakest Word in the English Language

February 21, 2009

To keep your writing as flat as matzo and even more bland than week-old white bread, be sure to pepper it with the word “very” as frequently as possible.

I can practically hear you squawking now: “This is a professional writing site; where do you get off saying something like that? That’s dreadful writing advice!”

Well, of course it is. It’s also the best way to ensure dull, unimaginative prose – stuff that’s guaranteed to make your readers want to jam pencils in their eyes. But it’s an ideal way to illustrate the point I’m about to make. Stick with me here.

The word “very” is – quite possibly – the weakest word in the English language. It’s the literary equivalent of adding sand to your tea. It offers zero in the way of nutritive value and even less in the way of flavor to your writing.

When contemplating the use of the word “very” in your writing, stop and ask yourself, “What word or phrase could I use instead to better convey my meaning?” If you’re describing a “very big rock” in the middle of the road, you could instead term it a “gargantuan boulder.” Or a “metamorphic monstrosity,” a “hulking sedimentary mass” or maybe even an “igneous behemoth plunked right in my path.”

Get the idea?

Don’t just look for the easy way out. Go deeper. That’s what writing for expression is all about: knowing what you want to convey and being able to communicate your meaning in a way that resonates with your reader.

For example, saying there’s a “very big rock in the road” means nothing, because it’s so doggone vague! Exactly how big is a “very big” rock? Each reader will have a different interpretation or idea of the word “big.” Stuart Little’s concept of a “very big rock” would be vastly different from, say, Andre the Giant’s. You need to give your readers some frame of reference. Is this rock bigger than the proverbial bread box? Smaller than a German shepherd? Roughly the size of a puma? Just how big is very big?

If you say, “The rock could barely fit into a milk crate,” that’s much better. It gives your readers a decent concept of the rock’s mass. A milk crate-sized rock is certainly large; but try this one on for size: “It was bigger than my ’71 VW Beetle.” Now, that’s big!

Another way around this adverbial quagmire is fairly straightforward: Toy around with different adverbs… like “extremely” or “tremendously.” Granted, that is kind of taking the easy way out, but it helps you neatly elude the “very” trap.

In my own writing, there are only two instances in which I use the word “very”: in nonfiction, when directly quoting another person; and in fiction, only in dialogue – when my control over what those independent and often-headstrong characters say is absolutely nonexistent.

So, if you find yourself with the opportunity to use the word “very,” politely decline it in favor of something a little more… meaty and substantive. Something with spice. Something with flavor. Something tasty!

Now get out there and get writing!


Welcome to The Persnickety Proofreader site!

February 20, 2009

Thanks for stopping by. Here you’ll find useful information to help your writing come alive, make your words leap off the page and dance around with glee. You’ve just got to give me some time to get some stuff written, so check back soon, okay?