How very dare you?

Is ‘very’ useless? Not entirely. But often, yes.

When I was a child, and our family went for walks on the Welsh coast, we’d occasionally come across dead things — a fox, a sheep, a rabbit — and I would sometimes ask my parents if such-and-such was indeed dead. My father generally tramped on ahead, so my mother, on checking said corpse, would usually reply, ‘Oh yes. Very dead.’ This bemused me because I knew that death, like pregnancy, was the ultimate binary option — either you are, or you ain’t — and I was still reasonably blind to her mordant wit.

I use this anecdote flimsily to concede that ‘very’ has its uses. As an intensifier, it adds a more factor; and yet there’s only so much more it can impart before it is as useless as an overprescribed antibiotic. If I’m skimming a CV, I don’t want to read that someone is ‘very experienced’: I should like their track record to be the judge of that. Either they are experienced, as Jimi might have posited, or they’re not. And if someone says they’re feeling ‘very tired’, how’s that on a scale of mildly pooped to done in? Are they exhausted, bone-weary, drained, shattered? When you think of the rich possibilities English offers, such paucity of vocab seems a crime.

While we’re at it, ‘very unique’ or ‘so unique’ are nonsensical expressions. Like death and pregnancy, it’s a binary thing: you’re either a one-off or you’re not.

‘Very’ is not alone. ‘Actually’, ‘really’, ‘basically’, ‘absolutely’ are others that have crept onto the page from our spaghetti-like spoken English. (If you’ve ever transcribed an oral account, you will know what I mean; you may also find the word ‘just’ sprinkled everywhere like sugar on a teenager’s porridge. Get rid of it.)

Then there are tautological phrases, such as ‘return (back)’, ‘combine (together)’, ‘(basic) necessities’, ‘(advance) warning’, and those unhappily married couples ‘cease and desist’, ‘aid and abet’, ‘first and foremost’, etc. The list of words that pointlessly pack our prose is long. Very long.

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