Rough Writer

By Michael Johnson - [email protected]



Readers probably haven’t seen one particular word in this newspaper very often? It’s a pet peeve of mine. Every time I see it, I delete it.

I don’t do it very often (delete it, that is) because I don’t use it, except for the purpose of this column. It’s a very useless word. Have you guessed what the word is yet? If you haven’t, here’s a hint: I’ve very grudgingly used it four times thus far.

It’s “very.” What does it mean?

To answer that, I looked it up on several very reputable journalism and writing sources. As an adverb, the word is used as an intensive emphasizing superlatives, or to stress identity or “oppositeness,” such as “the very best thing” or “in the very same place as before.”

It can be used as an adjective: “That is the very item we want,” “The very thought of it is distressing” and “The very heart of the matter.”

The word is said to have originated from Middle English between 1200 and 1250.

According to, “Past participles that have become established as adjectives can, like most English adjectives, be modified by the adverb ‘very,’ such as, ‘A very driven person’ and ‘We were very concerned for your safety.’”

The website goes further with its explanation, stating, “’Very’ does not modify past participles that are clearly verbal; for example, ‘The lid was very sealed’ is not an idiomatic construction, while ‘The lid was very tightly sealed’ is.’” It further adds, “Such use often occurs in edited writing: ‘We were very much relieved to find the children asleep’ and ‘They were very greatly excited by the news. I feel very badly cheated.’”

When I edit stories, the very sight of the word causes an involuntary reflex between my index finger and the backspace key. I can’t help it. It can be very frustrating.

I had it beaten into my head, very early on, by a wise editor who would become very enraged — to varying degrees, depending upon his mood for the day — when he saw the word in stories. I thought it very strange that a person could become so very angry by a four-letter word that didn’t spell an expletive.

Very strange, indeed. Now that very degree of strangeness has transferred to me. When I am editing stories, it stares at me like a deer in headlights, and all I want it to do is disappear.

I avoided all uses of it in my stories and columns in subsequent years, being very careful to use other adverbs in its place, such as, “I was extremely careful to use other adverbs in its place” or “I was exceedingly careful to use other adverbs in its place.”

Simpler yet, I avoided using an adverb altogether, such as, “I was careful to use other adverbs in its place.”

Even when I consciously avoid using an adverb, I still use an adverb.

English is a very strange language, with all sorts of nuances. It affects people in varying ways, from nonchalant to very excitable.

My problem with “very” is its uselessness. To what degree is someone “very” excited or “very” careful? It’s a subjective word. What is very exciting to me may not be very exciting to you, and vice versa. Using another word in its place, such as “extremely,” lends a sense of degree or urgency to the point that one can feel and relate to it.

“Very” tells me nothing. It’s a very useless word, except when used as part of another word, such as “every,” which indicates “all” in a very general sense.

One last thing to prove my point about the word’s usefulness — or lack thereof: Reread this column and eliminate all uses of the word “very,” except for instances in which I address the word directly. Do you still understand the context? Is it much more clear and crisp?

My very point exactly.


By Michael Johnson

[email protected]

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.

Reach Michael Johnson at 740-446-2342, ext. 2102, or on Twitter @OhioEditorMike.