Excising Expletives- Article 1: A Very Bad Word

Dirty words.

You know the words. If you don’t know them all, you at least know what they do.

The words that don’t mean exactly what the user thinks they mean. They’re used to make a point. But they turn on the one who uses them. Instantly they cheapen whatever is being said and weaken the argument.

Vague references aren’t helpful, so let’s be out with it. Let’s openly address the words that do the most damage to our message, especially our writing. Let’s cut out the expletives, the words that take the place of real words. Words that help convey ideas, not distract or muddy.

And I’m going to start with the worst. That’s right, I’m not holding back. I’m going to say it. It’s too important not to say it. I hesitate, because my brain knows it’s a bad word. But I am confident I must use it, instead of simply alluding to it.

Ok. Here I go.

Let’s talk about the word very.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Before you get yourself in an uproar, let’s remember why we are having this conversation.

We are looking at words that add meaning. And frankly, very adds nothing to the conversation.

Think about it! What does very mean? When we use it, we think we are adding intensity or quality or emotion or quantity. But we aren’t.

Very is simply a word that means you are trying to say what you’re trying to say. If I write, “The car is very red,” I mean the car is red, and I want you to know it was red. “The plane was very loud” means the plane was loud. “I am very tired” still means I am tired. Either something is, or something is not. Very doesn’t establish its is-ness.

What’s worse, cheap impact words like very, actually, absolutely are like saying “you can trust me” in a sales pitch. Why would a sales person need to say it if he is trustworthy? His character and product quality should back it up. Why is he compensating? Whats he hiding?

Is very one of your expletives? If so, you need to wash that dirty word out of your mouth! So what’s the metaphorical soap with which to wash out our mouths?How do we convey the intensity of the situation without using very?

The most obvious answer: vocabulary building.

Ugh! Really? So, like, weekly vocabulary words? Looking up definitions, and using them in a sentence, and reviewing them?


Well, maybe. It depends on how you build vocabulary. The schoolhouse methods really don’t work for me. But it might work for someone else.

My husband is much more likely to read a word new to him in Balderdash or our new favorite word game Huggermugger and remember it months later. I, on the other hand, have to read it in context many times and then try to use it before I have it. Even then I forget the word if it remains dormant in my brain.

Vocabulary building isn’t necessarily just learning new words. There may be words you confidently know and understand and can use, you just don’t. Or you may not be putting the right words together. Why? I have two suspicions:

  1. You don’t read enough. Find books that emulate what you want to accomplish, and it will become your language. Just because you were “90% literate” according to the test you took on a Facebook phishing site, it doesn’t mean you are able to use those words effectively. You have to have those words active in your mind for you to remember they are there.
  2. You don’t think enough. Analyze your subject, see its individuality, compare, describe. Brainstorm the possibilities. Free write about it and the idea you want to convey. Everything you write may end up as one sentence, but that sentence will give a clearer idea. Plus, you may be able to convey more ideas than the color. For instance, if you write “The car was maraschino cherry,” the reader knows exactly what color and intensity of red you intended. Plus, the car just got sexy. The sexiness of the word maraschino and the youthful, virginal but ripe concept of cherry do more than give an idea of color. The car is now exquisite and classy and maybe also slutty. It’s a party. And a sweet spot that everyone wants on top of their drink. “Very red” means none of those things.

So read and think. It’s not too much, right? And by read, I mean listen and talk and write, too. And by think, I mean read and write and listen and talk. Basically, use and receive words with intention.

Arbitrary words intended for emphasis often have the opposite effect. And whether or not the reader knows very is a bad word, it’s still hurting your message.

Mark Twain advised, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” He knew very is an expletive, and had no qualms with being realistic about it.


Any other bad words like very you recognize in your writing or the writing of others? What are some ways you build vocabulary and ideas for better use of language?


What are you thinking after reading this post? What is your response to these thoughts?

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