Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: very.

very. Part A: As a weasel word. This intensifier, which functions as both an adjective and an adverb, surfaces repeatedly in flabby writing. In almost every context in which it appears, its omission would result in at most a negligible loss. And in many contexts the idea would be more powerfully expressed without it — e.g.: “The very [delete ‘very’] outrageous statement by Earl Woods that his son would ‘do more than anyone to change humanity’ gives Woods a chance not only to survive his Miracle at the Masters, but to improve upon it.” Blaine Newnham, “Tiger ‘Knows What He’s Doing,'” Tulsa Trib. & Tulsa World, 19 Apr. 1997, at B2. In that sentence — as in so many others — “very” actually weakens the adjective that follows. Part B: “Very disappointed,” etc. The strict, archconservative view is that “very” modifies adjectives (“sorry,” “sick,” etc.) and not, properly, past participles (“disappointed,” “engrossed,” etc.). In 1966, Wilson Follett wrote that “finer ears are offended by past participles modified by ‘very’ without the intervention of the quantitative ‘much,’ which respects the verbal sense of an action undergone. Such writers require ‘very much disappointed,’ ‘very much pleased,’ ‘very much engrossed,’ ‘very well satisfied,’ etc.” (Modern American Usage at 343). Four years later, Charlton Laird nodded at this stricture but suggested that it had become passé: “Half a century ago purists insisted that the past participle should never be preceded by ‘very’ unless it was protected with an insulating ‘much,’ and some of us were so imbued with this supposedly eternal truth that we still wince if we hear that anyone is ‘very pleased.'” Language in America 493 (1970). Of course, many past-participial adjectives have now lost their verbal force. Almost no one today would hesitate over “very depressed,” “very drunk,” “very interested,” “very tired,” or “very worried.” Although Follett and Laird would probably be very much displeased to learn this, “very pleased” also belongs in this list. The principle is that when a past participle has become thoroughly established as an adjective, it can indisputably take “very” rather than “very much.” If there’s any doubt about the phrasing, a good solution is to substitute “quite” or (a little more formally) “much” — or, again, possibly “very much” — for “very.” E.g.: “‘Paul wrote in a time when women were very subjugated [read ‘quite subjugated’], so it was natural for him to take that point of view.'” Dana Sterling, “Retired Pastor Focused on People, Not Phrases,” Tulsa World, 28 Nov. 1997, at A24 (quoting Roy Griggs). For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ————————————— Quotation of the Day: There are two duties incumbent upon any man who enters on the business of writing: truth to the fact and a good spirit in the treatment. Robert Louis Stevenson, Learning to Write 126 (1888; repr. 1920).
Scroll to Top