Monday, February 25, 2013

Strunk & White on Qualifiers (like 'very' and 'pretty') | The Plain Language Programme

If the gunshot death of a 9-year-old student is tragic, is it any more terrible if it's called very tragic?

The writing advice in this short excerpt from Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is almost poetic. It advises us to avoid vague adjectives and adverbs like little, pretty, rather, and very because they can weaken the power of other words we're using. And ironically, that loss of strength may be opposite of what we're trying to accomplish by using those modifiers.

Those "qualifiers" can draw the reader's attention away from the important nouns or verbs they're modifying. And if a clear, powerful meaning is built in to those words, why precede them with a redundant, uninformative modifier?

Here's my related advice in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual; I don't mention little, but the Strunk & White advice is good:

pretty Vague and overused. Use it to describe women, girls, sights and sounds. But delete it, be more specific, or try words like almost, fairly or very in other uses. See fairly, very.
rather Vague adverb. Usually adds little. Omit, or be more precise: The train was rather late. The train was 15 minutes late. See unique.
very Use very only when its emphasis isn't already suggested in the word(s) it's modifying. Using it may be redundant, if not silly: Her death was very tragic. Where emphasis is necessary, use stronger, more descriptive words or be more precise: Her death at age 17 was tragic. See real, really.
fairly Vague adverb meaning "more than a little but much less than very." Huh? Eliminate that word, be more precise, or rethink what you're writing about: Change fairly hot to hot or warm--or be specific: 78 degrees.
real, really Sometimes confused. Both refer to truth, fact or reality, but real is an adjective for modifying nouns: a real illness, a real friend, real diamonds. And really is an adverb for modifying verbs, adjectives and other adverbs: really sorry, a really hot day, it really rained today. A vague word, use really sparingly, substitute very or be more precise. Instead of The assignment was really difficult, write The assignment took two days longer than expected.
unique By definition, unique must be used sparingly. It means "one of a kind, without like or equal." It does not mean "unusual" or "uncommon." There can be no degrees of uniqueness. Nothing can be more, less, sort of, rather, quite, very, slightly or most unique. If you're describing more than one person, place or thing, none of them are unique. Remember: Uni- means one -- and only one.
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The Strunk & White excerpt is featured today, Feb. 25, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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