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.

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

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)