A horrific accident occurred in my part of the country recently.
A truck carrying logs shed its load as it approached a bridge occupied by a group of construction workers. Men were trapped under logs, bleeding from their injuries, writhing in the pain of broken bones; several were killed. First responders rushed about, tending the injured.
On this hellish scene, someone commented, “It was very chaotic.”
As both adjective and adverb, the word very is appropriate in many contexts, but when prefixed to a strong word like chaotic, it weakens the expression.
Very has its place in numerous useful idioms:
That lamp is the very thing for my new end table!
Private car ownership is all very well, but billions of cars take a toll on the planet.
—Do you like me? —Very much so!
This is the very last size six they have in the store.
—Private Jones, bring me my rifle. —Very good, Sir!
A phrase associated with Elvis Presley is, “Thank you very much.”
The word very derives from Latin verus, “true,” and in some contexts it can still mean true in English:
“She’s the very epitome of class.”
“That’s the very truth, so help me.” (literally, the “true truth.”)
The use of very becomes questionable when it’s slapped indiscriminately onto adjectives that don’t need it.
With throwaway adjectives like good, bad, and nice, adding a very does no harm; it may even contribute a little meaning to mostly meaningless words. But with expressive adjectives like gory, heartbroken, and chaotic, adding a very has the effect of diminishing their power.
Here are examples of precise and powerful adjectives being vitiated by the unnecessary use of very:
The growth of the receipts has been very phenomenal.
I have a very stupefying headache today.
This guy committed very, very heinous crimes.
The man became very disconsolate after his wife’s death.
Child’s death leaves mother very heartbroken.
All of these adjectives—phenomenal, stupefying, heinous, disconsolate, and heartbroken—already convey intensity of meaning:
phenomenal: (in this context) marvelous, extraordinary, fantastic.
stupefying: numbing, deadening.
heinous: hateful, odious; highly criminal or wicked; infamous, atrocious.
disconsolate: of a person: lacking consolation or comfort; forlorn, inconsolable.
heartbroken: overwhelmed with anguish, despair, or grief.
And the adjective that prompted this post:
chaotic: utterly confused or disordered. (In Greek myth, Chaos is the “formless void” from which the universe came: earth, air, sky, water—all are mixed up and without order.)
Very has its uses, but next time you are tempted to put it in front of an adjective such as overwhelming, you might want to reconsider.
A version of this article first appeared on DailyWritingTips.