Writers, be wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers. Very, very wary.

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From The Washington Post:

I suppose, as a child, I learned the art of padding a school composition from the 1967 musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” specifically from the song “The Book Report,” in which the “Peanuts” characters are tasked with providing 100 words on “Peter Rabbit.” Lucy, bless her, painfully counts her way word by word, eventually crawling to the finish line by noting that, after their adventures, Peter and his siblings were “very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home … 94, 95. The very, very, very end.”

Cleverer methods of cheating — sorry, more sophisticated workarounds — followed for me, including the age-old trick of bloating typewriter margins (back in the 1970s, mind you) in an attempt to put one over on teachers foolish enough to assign papers by number of pages rather than word count. But it’s Lucy’s “very”s and the concept of word fat that stuck with me over the years, especially once I got into the copy editing racket.

Now, it’s a common misapprehension that “editing” is a synonym for “deleting.” Yes, by all means trim away what I call the Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers — “to be sure,” “that said,” “of course,” “in sum,” “rather,” “actually,” and, to be sure (ahem), “very.” But I have learned that prose often benefits from the cushioning of a few extra words — for rhythm, for sense, sometimes simply to counter the airlessness of sentences that are so straitened they can’t breathe.

That there are few absolutes in writing is why a case can be made for just about any word on a list of the proscribed. My British friends chide me about the ones cited above, noting that if they can’t utter these words, they can’t speak at all.

Good writing, I think, ultimately exists between the twin goal posts of as-few-words-as-you-need and as-many-words-as-you-want. I, a natural natterer, lean toward the latterer.

. . . .

But one must draw the line somewhere. I recommend striking out “actually” at every opportunity, unless it’s in a discussion of the movie “Love Actually,” in which case we might want to focus on the title’s confounding commalessness. Similarly, though I would never fault the supreme lyricist Johnny Mercer for the gorgeous “You’re much too much / And just too very very,” I am on constant alert for “very,” always looking for the chance to dispose of it. I’d encourage you to do the same.

For one thing, “very” is a fraud, masquerading as a strengthener when it merely wheedles and pleads. To call someone “brilliant” is to make a bold assertion; to call someone “very brilliant” attempts to persuade others of something one appears not to truly believe. Moreover, it’s a dull adverb and encourages duller adjectives. What, after all, is “very hungry” compared with “ravenous”? What’s “very sad” up against “despondent”? Who’d want to be “very strong” when you might be “herculean”?

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

The author of the OP, Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

1 thought on “Writers, be wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers. Very, very wary.”

  1. Actually, if I were so confident of my verbal superiority as the subject of the OP, I would title my book differently.

    “Utterly” is simply a pretentious substitution for “absolutely” – and, what is with the “an” in the title? Is he uncertain of his position at the very pinnacle of editorial qualification?

    “The Correct Guide to Clarity and Style” is the only appropriate title for such a work of linguistic hubris.

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