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A really, really big problem – why use superfluity when we can use superlatives?

John Lawson issues a heartfelt plea for high-profile media figures, politicians and students to cool it with the repetitive intensifiers…

  • A really, really big problem – why use superfluity when we can use superlatives?

With so many people desperately looking to fill hours of self-isolation, I propose that in between reading lots and lots of books and binge-watching very many box sets, we try to inoculate ourselves from a serious malady that’s currently afflicting our nation (no, not that one).

Exhibit A – Andrew Marr. He always, always starts the week on Radio 4, and can barely last a minute without saying ‘very, very’ or ‘really, really’.

While I don’t doubt Marr’s talent as broadcaster, I no longer have it in me to hear him on those Monday mornings describe how ‘So many, many millions and millions of people are suffering from this pandemic.’

I did briefly switch to Radio 2, only to chance upon Jeremy Vine interviewing a guest author who was brought up in a ‘Flat, flat landscape’. Do the BBC’s quality control people no longer take pride in ensuring articulacy and exterminating eradicable tics?

I pine for the days when the issues of the day were succinctly described as ‘extremely complicated’ rather than ‘very, very, very complex’.

Mark Twain once lambasted the use of ‘very’ in written discourse thus: “Every time one is tempted to use ‘very’, replace it with ‘damn’; your editor will cross it out and your writing will be as it should be.” [You’re wrong, Twain – Ed]

Very bad, bigly

One can only imagine the shuddering of Twain’s grave were he to ever encounter the speeches and tweets of Donald Trump these past few years, for whom everything is either, ‘very, very bad’ or ‘very very good’.

Sports commentators are at it, too. Not only are we told that, ‘The boy’s done very, very good there,’ we’re also informed that, ‘Man United’s got a massive, massive game coming next week, so they’ll need to be highly, highly focused’.

Even after that particular episode of Match of the Day, there it was again – at the close of a political discussion programme, when a politician was urged to sum up his views ‘Very, very briefly’. What’s wrong with ‘Briefly, please’?

I wonder how aware English teachers are that most of their adverbs and adjectives lists are in danger of becoming obsolete, as their students habitually describe everything as ‘Very, very cool’.

When we come down to it, even a sole ‘very’, ‘really’ or ‘actually’ is hardly ever necessary in everyday speech. Can anybody explain the difference between ‘very dangerous’ and ‘very, very dangerous’?

Basically awesome

I can only hope that teachers in the UK will ultimately rise up and fight back against this tide of superfluousness, in an echo of their US counterparts’ struggles against ‘like’ and ‘kindalike’.

When I taught in Florida, I did my best to push back against the overuse of ‘awesome’ to describe everything from a doughnut to the Sistine Chapel.

Any students able to refrain from using the words ‘basically’ and ‘awesome’ were rewarded with extra credit points at the end of the semester – an incentive that seemed to work wonders.

I might not have been 100% successful, but my success rate – at least when the students were in my vicinity – came in at around the 80% mark. I still consider it a worthwhile attempt at making my students come across as more articulate than before, and I make no apologies.

Put simply, drastic action is required. If we continue to ignore this really, really irritating trend, we risk losing many superior substitutes for ‘very, very good’, such as terrific, marvellous, wonderful, superb and brilliant.

To all those teachers out there, I implore you to at least draw your students’ attention to this blight upon our linguistic landscape. How about putting a charity jar in the staffroom or classroom and gathering 5p fines for every utterance of ‘very, very’ and the like?

Parents could treat their children to something nice if they manage to go a week without a ‘really, really’ passing their lips.

Together, we can strive for a cleaner and crisper discourse – because your country really, really needs you to help tackle this scourge that’s making many, many Brits and Americans sound positively imbecilic.

Who’s with me…?


John Lawson is a former secondary teacher now serving as a foundation governor and running a tutoring service; for more information, visit prep4successnow.wordpress.com

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