Writers, be Wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers

From a Washington Post column by Benjamin Dreyer headlined “Writers, be wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers. Very, very wary.”:

Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

I suppose, as a child, I learned the art of padding a school composition from the 1967 musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” specifically from the songThe Book Report,” in which the “Peanuts” characters are tasked with providing 100 words on “Peter Rabbit.” Lucy, bless her, painfully counts her way word by word, eventually crawling to the finish line by noting that, after their adventures, Peter and his siblings were “very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home … 94, 95. The very, very, very end.”

Cleverer methods of cheating — sorry, more sophisticated workarounds — followed for me, including the age-old trick of bloating typewriter margins (back in the 1970s, mind you) in an attempt to put one over on teachers foolish enough to assign papers by number of pages rather than word count. But it’s Lucy’s “very”s and the concept of word fat that stuck with me over the years, especially once I got into the copy editing racket.

Now, it’s a common misapprehension that “editing” is a synonym for “deleting.” Yes, by all means trim away what I call the Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers — “to be sure,” “that said,” “of course,” “in sum,” “rather,” “actually,” and, to be sure (ahem), “very.” But I have learned that prose often benefits from the cushioning of a few extra words — for rhythm, for sense, sometimes simply to counter the airlessness of sentences that are so straitened they can’t breathe.

That there are few absolutes in writing is why a case can be made for just about any word on a list of the proscribed. My British friends chide me about the ones cited above, noting that if they can’t utter these words, they can’t speak at all.

Good writing, I think, ultimately exists between the twin goal posts of as-few-words-as-you-need and as-many-words-as-you-want. I, a natural natterer, lean toward the latterer.

But one must draw the line somewhere. I recommend striking out “actually” at every opportunity, unless it’s in a discussion of the movie “Love Actually,” in which case we might want to focus on the title’s confounding commalessness. Similarly, though I would never fault the supreme lyricist Johnny Mercer for the gorgeous “You’re much too much / And just too very very,” I am on constant alert for “very,” always looking for the chance to dispose of it. I’d encourage you to do the same.

For one thing, “very” is a fraud, masquerading as a strengthener when it merely wheedles and pleads. To call someone “brilliant” is to make a bold assertion; to call someone “very brilliant” attempts to persuade others of something one appears not to truly believe. Moreover, it’s 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”?

Now, every time I go on one of my anti-“very” rants, I recall the time my friend the dazzling writer Amy Bloom rapped my knuckles (virtually) and noted that sometimes those two modest little syllables are all you need to give a modest everyday adjective an extra shove. And yes, she’s correct, as she tends to be about just about everything.

And yet.

The other day I had cause to recall the time, back in my senior year at Northwestern University, when I directed a play. This was shortly before I abandoned my theatrical ambitions in the face of the incontrovertible fact that many of my classmates were vastly more talented than I was — who wants to sign on for lifelong mediocrity at age 20? As a last hurrah, I’m happy to report, the show went well. My parents flew out from New York to Evanston, Ill., to take in the Saturday night performance. Afterward, the cast, crew, family and friends were hanging around backstage, and someone — a faculty member? somebody’s parent? it was an adult — shook my hand and complimented the production as “very professional.”

After the well-wisher moved on, my father — standing just over my shoulder, as I recall — spoke up. Not a man free with compliments — he was more in the mold of how the late Mary Rodgers describes her parents, Dorothy and Richard Rodgers (as in “& Hammerstein”), in her superb recently published memoir, “Shy”: often wonderful about the big things yet often terrible about the small things.

My father offered, of all things, a copy edit: “It wasn’t ‘very professional,’ ” he said to me. “It was professional.”

It was — with the exception of what, decades later, were his last words to me, possibly to anyone, and you’ll forgive me for not sharing them here — the nicest thing he ever said to me.

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