The Write Stuff
Very, Very, Very Important Advice
By Alan Crawford
There’s a moment in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown when Lucy has to write a report of 100 words on Peter Rabbit. She meets the requirement by carefully counting the words and then hits the mark by concluding that Peter is “very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home. The very, very, very end.”
It’s a good imitation, come to think of it, of the way a certain recent ex-president expresses his thoughts. It is also a good reminder of how empty a word very really is.
Very almost always leaches power from the word a writer thinks it is strengthening.
Benjamin Dreyer, a Random House editor, made this point and others of comparable value in a Washington Post piece last month.
Dreyer, who is the author of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, calls very 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’?”
Writers, Dreyer says, should be wary of what he calls “Throat-Clearers” and “Wan Intensifiers.” These words and combinations of words (English teachers call these combinations of words “phrases”) include “to be sure,” “that said,” “of course,” “in sum,” “rather” and “actually.”
One of the best writers I ever knew used to say, as well as write, “in point of fact” and could make a persuasive case for doing so. Notice that I could have written “for doing just that” but did not.
Another friend, an otherwise competent writer, seems incapable of saying or writing anything without, when reaching for what he thinks passes for a conclusion, “at the end of the day.”
Maybe there is a time and place for “in point of fact,” and there are no doubt occasions when “very” makes its contribution. Effective writing — at the end of the day — is a question of awareness rather than rules.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH: Bandwidth. Like so many terms borrowed from the esoteric worlds of science and technology, bandwidth sounds precise and specific. But ask a friend who uses it about its origin and see if they can tell you.
Bandwidth is a product, apparently, of the early days of radio communications and got picked up decades later when an internet connection depended on telephone and cable lines. Merriam- Webster now includes among definitions for bandwidth “the emotional or mental capacity necessary to do or consider something.”
Unfortunately, there’s little chance the word will be shamed into extinction. It sounds a lot more professional, after all, to explain that you “lack the bandwidth” to take on a new project than to say you don’t have time, don’t want to, or can’t stand the co-worker making the ask.
Here’s a helpful discussion of the issue.
Related Article: Bravo for ‘Brevity’
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