Very, quite, really, pretty, a bit, just, fairly, rather, amazingly, almost, nearly, obviously, clearly… such naughty words!
Or are they? Placed directly in front of adjectives or adverbs they are a shorthand method of qualifying the meaning of that adverb or adjective. Sometimes they flounce around by themselves only accompanied now and again by a comma.
Some like fairly, somewhat and pretty weaken the adverbs or adjectives they modify. They diminish the quality described by the adverb or adjective:
– It’s a fairly common disease. (=It’s not common, but it’s not rare, either. It’s somewhat common.)
– The film was pretty good but not great. (=The film wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad either. It was okay.)
– I have to leave pretty soon. (=I don’t have to leave this minute, but I can’t stay for much longer.)
Others like really, very, and extremely are considered to be strong intensifiers:
– She did very well on the test. (=she didn’t simply do well, she did extremely well)
– The water is really cold. (=the water isn’t just cold, it’s extremely cold)
And then we have the heavy brigade of remarkably, amazingly, exceptionally, incredibly, and two old favourites: particularly and unusually. And close behind, the riot squad: absolutely, completely, totally, utterly.
He was an exceptionally brilliant child.
The film was absolutely awful.
The food smelled utterly disgusting.
And then there’s the problem of quite
The straightforward sense: when quite is placed in front of an adjective or adverb it’s intended to add strength, but not as much as really or very.
The show was quite good. (=the show was noticeably good, perhaps better than expected.)
We had to wait for quite a long time. (= more than expected)
Kingfishers are quite common in this area. (=kingfishers are noticeably common, more common than you might expect.)
The ambiguous sense
‘It’s not quite the kind of behaviour we expect from a teacher.’ (= this is outrageous behaviour.)
He was quite a good singer. (= passable)
Are you quite sure you know what to do? (= I know you don’t have a clue.)
They’re doing a marvellous job, but they haven’t quite finished. (=The builders only arrived this morning two weeks late.)
I’m not sure that ‘respect’ is quite the right word. (=Sycophancy would be a better one.)
So what do these qualifiers do for writers?
Not very much, as I see it. As writers we can do better. Firstly, if using adjectives find a more specific one than one using a qualifier. It doesn’t have to be ‘writerly’ or clever, just accurate.
Strong adjectives like:
Very big = enormous, huge
Very small = tiny, minute
Very clever = brilliant, gifted
Very bad = awful, terrible, disgusting, dreadful, frightening, even terrifying or harrowing
Very sure = certain, confident that, adamant
Very good = excellent, wonderful, splendid, marvellous
Very tasty = delicious
Secondly, try deleting the adverb or adjective and see if your expression still makes sense.
She shouted at him angrily. Shouting implies deep emotion such as anger.
The little dog yelped loudly Yelping is a piercing sound and dogs that yelp are often little (but I’ll give you little if you fight for it.)
The valley side fell away steeply If the valley side falls away, it’s going to be steep.
They ambled along slowly Ambling is a slow form of walking.
Copper lights glinted in her chestnut hair If her hair is chestnut, then under a light (sun or other), copper lights will glint anyway.
The red double-decker crawled along Regent Street. London double-decker buses are red.
Thirdly, I’m sure the idea you want to express in the sentence can be written in a livelier way. Take the two earlier sentences:
– She did very well on the test.
Better as ‘She grasped the result notice and stared at it. She swallowed hard. ‘Mum,’ she squeaked. ‘I’ve got 92%!’
– The water is really cold.
Better as ‘She jerked her foot out of the stream and checked that her toes hadn’t been frozen off.
The clue here is to use strong verbs such as grasped, squeaked, jerked to show how the result was good and the water cold.
Although qualifiers are common in spoken English (That’s really, no, totes great!) using them in your book weakens your writing; writers should find other ways to communicate intensity.
Is there any hope for the qualifiers?
Yes! There are three places where you can ‘qualify’ to your heart’s content. The first is in your first draft; there you can commit any writing solecism you like since the aim is to get the story out of your head through your fingers into written words on the page. Using very, quite, really, a bit, just, etc. can get your writing flowing. You can also use weak verbs like try to, manage to, think and wonder, and your punctuation can wobble. With experience you’ll find you use them less and less in your first draft, but better to be sloppy at that first stage and keep the story going than interrupt it with nit-picking. The machete in form of the line edit will come out when you revise your draft.
The second place is in dialogue as this extract from my latest novel INSURRECTIO shows:
‘Yes, the magister was rather busy explaining that this evening, wasn’t he? I really must replace him.’
‘Was that what was happening in the guardroom? No wonder they were terrified and crying. How can you enslave free citizens? It’s never been permitted in Roma Nova. Apulius specifically excluded it from the Twelve Tables.’
The antagonist speaking in the first sentence affects a lazy, semi-sarcastic style in an attempt to be clever so words such as ‘rather’ and ‘really’ characterise his speech and him. The heroine replies in clipped sentences, but uses a qualifier, in this case ‘specifically’, as many of us do to push home a point when speaking.
And the third place is in first person narration if it’s that character’s natural voice. The trick is to sprinkle rather than deluge, i.e. not to insert so many qualifiers that the text sounds incoherent, obscures the meaning or, worst of all, bores the reader.
Some genres, especially in lighter reads, allow more qualifiers and indeed multiple adjectives than others – it can be a question of style and tone for that genre. But fewer qualifiers give a crisper result.
The litmus test for qualifiers, be they adjectives or adverbs, is to take them out and see if the sentence still works. If it does, you know what to do.
Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces.
Busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…
But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.
Alison lives in France with her husband and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines, potters around the garden and drinks wine.
Represented by Blake Friedman Literary Agency for overseas and ancillary rights
INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series
PERFIDITAS, second in series
SUCCESSIO, third in series
INSURRECTIO, fifth in series, the second in the Aurelia cycle of three
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
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- Is There Any Hope For Qualifiers? | WordHarbour | April 13, 2016