There’s something in me that hates rules, especially when couched in language like this:
“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys—to woo women—and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” ―John Keating
John Keating is not alone in his belief that ‘very’ should be avoided.
I’m not sure where I first came across the prejudice against very, possibly in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style:
“Very. Use this word sparingly. Where emphasis is necessary, use words strong in themselves.” (See Elements of Style, Words and Expressions Commonly Misused)
While I’m not advocating an affair with very, there are times when a scene cries out for the word. One place is at the end of chapters that bring about closure. They might end with a sentence like this:
They were very happy.
Really simple sentence, I know. Okay, a dumb ass sentence—I’ll grant you that—especially when taken out of context. For sure “They were very happy” does not entice the reader to turn the page. But it illustrates my point, assuming it’s the closing narrative comment of a scene.
If the thought reflects not just the happiness of the couple but the level of the narrator’s perception, then of course there is deeper than surface meaning going on in the sentence. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean that it’s the sound of very that emphasizes closure. Just listen to its rhythm and how the beats in very mirror the beats in happy. Now tell me which sentence is a stronger close:
- They were happy.
- They were very happy.
Sometimes rules are like handcuffs. If followed blindly, they result in fettered thought, muffled insight, waste of time, writer’s block.
Photo of the destroyed Palais des Tuileries, public domain. Built in 1564 by Catherine de’Medici, the palace stood on what is now the Louvre courtyard. Blindly following the rules, twelve men were ordered to set it on fire during the last days of the Paris Commune. Using petroleum, liquid tar and turpentine they lit the fire around 7pm on May 23, 1871. It continued to burn for forty-eight hours, completely destroying the palace.