A word to the wise: Verily I say unto you

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- Many decades ago a young Canadian named Leslie McFarlane got his first job in journalism, writing for the Cobalt (Ontario) Nugget. His crusty editor sent him out into the world with only one inviolable rule: Don't ever use the word "very."

Today, in combing through McFarlane's oeuvre as one of the most widely read writers on Earth -- under a pen name, he ghostwrote "The Hardy Boys" -- you will struggle to find even a single "very." It may be the only good thing that can be said about these atrociously written books.

But it is good. "Very" is a dreadful word, for two reasons. Reason One is that it is lazy. If you habitually employ "very" to modify adjectives like, say, "smart," you never have to learn or try out more complex and nuanced expressions like "perspicacious" or "astute" or "cerebrocortextacular," which I just made up and which is way cooler than "very smart." But Reason Two is more important: "Very" is almost always a lie. It's this wan, piece-of-crap word you use when you have a concept you want to impart but are worried that your idiot reader won't believe you, possibly because your concept is not true and maybe the reader is not as stupid as you think he is. So you add "very," which doubles down on your initial questionable assertion, giving it gravitas, and then you move on happily to the next exaggerated sentence. (Believe me, I know. I have done it.)

Happily, the Internet's Ngram tool informs us that over the past 200 years, "very" has been declining in use -- a line on a chart that has been steadily falling, alas, until a sudden, startling uptick about 20 years ago that continues to this day.

I am very, very, very sure I know why:

The public rise of Donald Trump.


The president of the United States appears to be the world's biggest abuser of the word "very."

He does it with breathtaking audacity. In an interview with New York magazine late last year touting his accomplishments, he used "very" 12 times within 300 words. ("General Kelly's doing a very good job. ... We have a very good relationship. The White House is running very, very smoothly. ... It was a very, very positive thing. We have a very positive story going on at the White House. We have a very positive story for the country … We have a very smooth-running organization…")

Do you know how often 12 times in 300 words is? Do you know how inane it is? In the first 300 words of this column, I did not use the word "the" 12 times.

"Very" may be a stupid word, but it is inarguably versatile. Dictionaries inform us that it can be correctly employed -- technically defensible -- in just about every case but one:


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