Advice: Substitute ‘Damn’ Every Time You’re Inclined to Write ‘Very’

Mark Twain? William Allen White? Franklin P. Adams? Brock Pemberton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I’ve been quoting an editor-friend’s advice for years, and suddenly tonight I see it online attributed to Mark Twain:

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

If that’s really Twain, what work is it from, please? It’s all over the Internet on quote sites.

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said this. It is not listed on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt. 1

In the earliest citation located by QI the humorous advice was credited to William Allen White who was a prominent newspaper editor based in Emporia, Kansas. Here is the tale as told in 1935 by a columnist in a Seattle, Washington newspaper: 2

William Allen White’s visit here, en route to the Philippines, recalled the story of the famous Kansas editor and publisher’s meeting several years ago with a group of fledgling newspaper men in Lawrence. Kas. The “cubs” listened eagerly to everything “the Sage of Emporia” had to say and besought him to give them some advice about news writing.

“I never give advice,” said Mr. White, “but there is one thing I wish you would do when you sit down to write news stories, and that is: Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1917, almost two decades before the anecdote above was told, William Allen White was connected to a quotation featuring the words “damn” and “very”. This is clearly a different episode, but it is interesting that the same two words were highlighted: 3

William Allen White says that women use “very” when men use “damn.” All right, but what do men say as the next step in their vocabulary when women say “damn.”

In 1922 “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ascribed the central piece of advice to White, but the anecdote presented was incomplete: 4

IMPRACTICABLE — Will Allen White advises the use of “damn” in place of “very.” Very fine in some cases, but we’ll be very if it always goes.

In 1935 a Seattle newspaper column titled “Strolling Around the Town” printed the full anecdote under investigation. The details were given above.

In 1946 a different version of the tale was published which included another well-known personality of the period: Franklin P. Adams, a prominent columnist and member of the famous Algonquin Round Table: 5

William Allen White, who thought “very” was the most overworked word in the ‘English language, once told Franklin P. Adams how he could eliminate the word. “Instead of ‘very’ write the word ‘dam’,” he advised. “The proofreader will knock out the ‘damn’ and there you have a right good sentence.”

(The newspaper used both spellings: “dam” and “damn”.) Although these two anecdotes differed they may have both occurred because White may have told the joke on multiple occasions.

In 1947 the high-circulation magazine Reader’s Digest printed the story given immediately above. The following acknowledgement was attached, and it may indicate the origin of this version: 6

Brock Pemberton, quoted in Kansas City Star

Also in 1947 a paper in Lethbridge, Alberta printed the tale and acknowledged the Kansas City Star. 7

In conclusion, the earliest evidence in 1935 points to William Allen White as the creator of this comical advice. The evidence is not direct, and the teller of the anecdote stated that it happened “several years ago”, so its veracity is not clear. Yet, QI thinks William Allen White is the best candidate for ascription.

(This query was not sent as a personal email to QI. It was sent to a mailing list of librarian researchers. Great thanks to Nina Gilbert for raising this question. Also, thanks to researcher S. M. Colowick who identified William Allen White as the leading choice for actor in the anecdote. Also, thanks to Bill Mullins who pointed out the article on the BuzzFeed website about “Indispensable Writing Tips”.)

Update History: On January 26, 2017 the 1922 citation was added, and the bibliographic note style was changed to numeric.

Notes:

  1. TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt. [Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources] (Searched August 29, 2012) link
  2. 1935 October 18, Seattle Daily Times, Strolling Around the Town, Second Main News Section: Front Page [GNB Page 37], Column 3 and 4, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1917 December 6, Watertown Daily Times, [Freestanding short item], Page 4, Column 3, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1922 October 6, The Pittsburgh Press, Twilight Thinks, Quote Page 14, Column 5, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers.com)
  5. 1946 December 19, Orrville Courier Crescent, [Freestanding short item], Page 6, Column 3, Orrville, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1947 January, Reader’s Digest, Volume 50, Right Back Where He Started, [Freestanding short anecdote], Quote Page 112, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1947 February 27, Lethbridge Herald, Left Hand Corner, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Lethbridge, Alberta. (NewspaperArchive)

2 thoughts on “Advice: Substitute ‘Damn’ Every Time You’re Inclined to Write ‘Very’

  1. Sally Pemberton

    Dear Quote Investigator,
    I am the great-niece of Brock Pemberton and currently researching the life of his brother, my grandfather, Murdock Pemberton. Both worked for William Allen White at the Emporia Gazette in the early 1900s. I would like to add this to your WAW attribution. Murdock Pemberton wrote this of White’s city editor Laura French: …she called me to her desk and said, “Look here, young man, there is no such word as ‘very.’ You use it in every one of your stories.” She would have said it circa 1908-10 so White must have said it prior to that and instituted it as company policy.

  2. Garson O'Toole Post author

    Sally Pemberton: Thanks for visiting the website and sharing this fun remark about ‘very’.

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