No such thing as “very imperative”


Can something be “very imperative?” No, it can’t.

I’ve already written about the overuse of intensifiers, our habit of tacking adverbs like very, really, and extremely onto words in an attempt to turn up the intensity of our language. While adding an intensifier sometimes makes sense, we can usually find a word that already has the intensity we want.

And then there are times when you simply should not modify a word’s intensity at all. I read an essay recently that described something as being “very imperative.” This will not do.

Imperative means “absolutely necessary or required; unavoidable.” Just as there are no shades of pregnancy (you either are pregnant, or you are not), there are no degrees of intensity with the word imperative. There is no volume knob, because being imperative is a binary state. Something either is imperative, or it isn’t, and so the intensifier very doesn’t add any information.

Remember that some words have no gradation, no variation of intensity, and therefore it is useless to graft a modifier to them. Things are everlasting, unique, monochromatic, or symmetrical, or they are not. These words don’t work with intensifiers, just like a coffee maker doesn’t come with a speed control—it’s either on or it’s off.

Think of it this way: if it wouldn’t make sense to modify a word with a diminishing adverb like slightly, then it doesn’t make sense to add an intensifier like very. It doesn’t make sense to say something is slightly imperative, therefore it’s equally nonsensical to say it’s very imperative.

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4 Responses to No such thing as “very imperative”

  1. Lars Walker says:

    You know what the root problem is? We don’t know Latin or Greek anymore. Back when people understood the languages these terms came from, they automatically knew to use them right. To us these are just long words with lots of letters in them.

    For the record, I have no Latin, and less Greek.

  2. While “very imperative” is inexcusable, I think “very symmetrical” is fine. A circle is more symmetrical than a octagon, which is more symmetrical than a triangle. An object may have more than one symmetry, so a very symmetrical object is one with many symmetries.

  3. While “very imperative” is inexcusable, there is such a thing as “very symmetrical”. A symmetry of an object is a transformation that leaves the object looking exactly the same. The symmetries of a square include rotation by 90 degrees, vertical reflection, horizontal reflection and reflection across the diagonals. A very symmetrical object is one which possesses many symmetries (like a circle).

  4. Ravi Bedi says:

    He’s childish
    He’s very childish
    He’s annoyingly childish
    He’s atrociously childish
    He’s unbelievably childish

    He’s . . . well, childish, but the degree of his childishness cannot be expressed appropriately without using intensifiers. I wouldn’t hesitate using it if the situation so demands. Why do we have this word ‘very’, if it’s use is restricted. Oh, I forgot; it is English after all!

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