What's the worst four-letter word?

The worst four-letter word of all? It’s ‘v***’

When I’m reviewing a copywriter’s work, there’s often a particular word that leaps out at me as the most offensive expletive on the whole page: ‘very’.

Expletives include more than swear words. They’re defined as words that add no meaning to a sentence, other than to communicate the strength of the writer’s feelings. Which means ‘really’, ‘truly’, and ‘basically’ are in the same boat.

“‘Very’ is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out.” Florence King

The v-word is everywhere in marketing copy, littering sentences with pointless padding. You’re always invited to conduct a very thorough inspection, it’s a very innovative idea, or a very catchy introduction. The word bloats up copy with vagueness, while the writer feels confident they’ve expressed their intended message.

Keith Henshall (who founded the Henshall Centre) taught me to think about sentences as if they were canoes trying to get to their destination. Which sounds weird, but bear with us…

Sentences need to make a point, and any word that’s not really helping the canoe paddle to its objective is just slowing it down. To improve your writing, delete your expletives or replace them with more powerful and specific words.

Instead of having v***, use a better word. Instead of ‘very excited’, you could be ‘thrilled’. A ‘very interesting’ idea could be ‘captivating’, or ‘fascinating’, while ‘very useful’ feedback could instead be ‘valuable’ or ‘constructive’.

How to say goodbye to the ‘v-word’

Ready to let go of ‘very’? Here’s some advice I recently gave in a writing workshop.

Replace every ‘very’ with the word ‘f***ing’

  • a f***ing innovative idea
  • a f***ing catchy introduction
  • our customers are f***ing satisfied
  • a f***ing difficult process

Your boss, client or editor will delete the swear words (and think you’re an idiot) but your copy will improve instantly. I borrowed the technique from Mark Twain, who was a much politer gentleman.

What should you do instead?

The next time you reach for a ‘very’, stop, and think of another adjective you could use instead.

It might be hard at first, but as with everything that’s worth doing, you’ll build a habit with practice but you’ll build a habit with practice. If you’re struggling, bookmark this list of v*** f***ing useful alternatives.