Avoid Using “Very”

“VERY” is an adverb, and adverbs aren’t the kind of words you want to use freely.

Consider these three sentences:

(a) He very deliberately stuck a nail under her car tire.
(b) He deliberately stuck a nail under her car tire.
(c) He stuck a nail under her car tire.

Find out what we did with this same double-adverb combination in a Straits Times piece called Red Line in the South China Sea. We also show you, among other things:

how we picked away at a clunky phrase
why we tossed out a stiff, stodgy line in favor of a more conversational turn of phrase

***
“Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very,” wrote Mark Twain. “Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Find out how the adverb very can weaken rather than strengthen a sentence in our feature excerpt:

Last week in the South China Sea, a US Navy P8 maritime patrol aircraft very deliberately flew into airspace around one of the disputed islands claimed by China. It did so to demonstrate America’s displeasure at China’s development of some of the islands into bases to support military operations. CNN journalists were aboard the aircraft just to make sure the world would see America openly defying China’s moves to reinforce its claims to the islands.  [75 words]

Red Line in the South China Sea
By Hugh White
The Straits Times, 27 May 2015
The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra

*

Here’s our suggested revision:

Last week, in the South China Sea, a US Navy P8 maritime patrol aircraft entered the airspace over one of the disputed islands claimed by China. It did so to demonstrate America’s displeasure at China for developing some of the islands into military bases. CNN journalists were aboard the aircraft to let the world know that America was openly defying China’s moves to reinforce its claims to the islands.  [66 words]

1. Place a comma after “Last week.” This sets it apart from the following non-restrictive adverbial clause, “in the South China Sea.”

2. Delete “very,” following Twain’s advice. Then you’d find “deliberately” can go too. That very act of flying in China-claimed airspace is defiant and bold, making the adverb “deliberately” superfluous. The edited sentence is much cleaner too from the verb switch, “flew into” to “entered.”

3. This is vague: “around one of the disputed islands.” Did they fly over China airspace or did they just skirt the periphery? It’s unclear. But if the Americans meant to rattle the Chinese and did fly into their airspace, then this works better: “over one of the disputed islands.”

4. This is a clunky noun phrase: “China’s development of some of the islands into bases to support military operations.” How can we give that inert, possessive phrase “China’s development” more zing? Change “development” to “developing”—a noun-to-verb change that makes the sentence more fluid, easier to read.

5. So you want to develop “islands into bases to support military operations”? Why don’t you just turn those “islands into military bases”? You’ve just killed three words for a cleaner, crisper line.

6. The phrase “just to make sure the world would see” could be written more forcefully. Reword it: “to let the world know that.”

Consider the word “just.” It’s an adverb. Generally, good writing rests on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. So cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, “just” included. See also my strikethrough over “openly.”

7. We were at first quibbling over “claims to the islands” versus “claims on the islands.” But the author is right. Unless you were pro-China, you’d agree with his phrasing.

  • claims to
    – a demand or request for something considered one’s due: the court had denied their claims to asylum.
  • claim on
    – a right or title to something: they have first claim on the assets of the trust.

We invite you to share your thoughts if you have other editorial suggestions, or write us at viv@mywritinghome.com if you have any curious, odd encounters with language you’d like us to feature and fix.

Improve It!” offers insights on how to revise, rewrite, snip, edit, move words around for style, clarity, and conciseness. We take a short extract from an article, polish it, and show you how and why we made the changes we did.

One thought

  1. Very useful advice Vivienne, thanks. I will definitely pay attention to avoiding useless adverbs from now on as I clearly very much have a tendency to overuse precisely this very kind of words!!…

    Like

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