December 3, 2011 @ 4:43 pm
James J. Kilpatrick over at AdviceToWriters writes about which words not to modify with ‘very’:
Our language contains perhaps a score of words that may be described as absolute words. These are words that properly admit of no comparison or intensification. . . . My own modest list of words that cannot be qualified by “very” or “rather” or “a little bit” includes unique, imperative, universal, final, fatal, complete, virgin, pregnant, dead, equal, eternal, total, essential, and indispensable.
I love this stuff. It’s the kind of thinking that entertains me on long hikes. But I want to tweak Kilpatrick’s list a bit. (Before we start, what’s the noun virgin doing there? Or maybe it is an adjective, and we’re in cocktail territory: “Waiter, please give me a very virgin strawberry daiquiri.”)
For one thing, Kilpatrick’s modest list misses not just a few individual words, but entire categories. Yes, absolute words do clash with ‘very’ and ‘rather’, but so do all words expressing a totality or an absence. Furthermore, the trouble doesn’t stop with these all-or-nothing qualities. Superlatives, too, grate on the reader’s ear when qualified or intensified. In fact, if you take almost any word expressing an extreme and weaken it with ‘rather’ or puff it up with ‘very’, your writing will sound… very terrible.
- very stupendous
- rather spectacular
- somewhat dumbstruck
- a little awe-inspiring
- very terrible
- fairly delectable
But compare with these. I don’t mind them quite as much.
- rather horrible
- quite content—Not bad even though ‘content’ is arguably a binary on-or-off state.
Now we’re getting to the massive exception in this “rule”: figurative and ironic writing. True, it’s a good idea to avoid “most complete” in formal writing requiring factual precision—scientific, legal, or technical works. But in reality, much of our writing (and speech!) floats somewhere above the stony concrete of facts and precision. Irony, figurative expression—these are not fluff. They are indispensable. In fact they are everywhere, as they bleeping well should be.
- “Welcome to … – the most complete wine price index in the world.” —cribbed from the Web
While we’re on the subject, check out this good ole’ knock-down, drag-out fight on when to use quite, rather, pretty, and fairly. (Okay, it’s more polite than all that. Still it’s worth checking out.)
And finally, Strunk’s razor:
Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.
—William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. 1972