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How hilarious is very hilarious?

Q: Pat used the expression “very hilarious” recently on Iowa Public Radio. I am wondering if words like “excellent,” “hilarious,” “superb,” etc., shouldn’t stand alone. Isn’t “very” superfluous?

A: Some usage authorities object to qualifying words they consider “absolutes” (like “complete,” “perfect,” “unique,” “infinite,” and so on). However, the words you mention aren’t considered absolute terms.

You’re right, though, that words like “excellent,” “superb,” and “hilarious” are intense enough by themselves, and generally shouldn’t need to be qualified.

As soon as Pat used the phrase “very hilarious” during her June 14 appearance on Talk of Iowa, she regretted it. She wouldn’t have used this expression in writing, but such are the perils of live radio!

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry a while back about the use of absolute terms.

In a broad sense, we agree with the usage writers who object to qualifying these terms. But we think it’s legitimate to use qualifiers with absolute terms in some cases — for instance, to show that something is approaching an absolute condition.

We think that’s what the Founders had in mind when they wrote in the Preamble of the Constitution about forming “a more perfect Union.”

If you’d like another opinion, here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has to say in a usage note about absolutes:

“By strict logic, absolute terms cannot be compared, as by more and most, or used with an intensive modifier, such as very or so. Something either is complete or it isn’t – it cannot be more complete than something else.”

But criticizing such a usage as illogical, American Heritage adds, “confuses pure logic or a mathematical ideal with the rough approximations that are frequently needed in ordinary language.”

“Certainly in some contexts we should use words strictly logically; otherwise teaching mathematics would be impossible,” the dictionary says.

But it notes that people “often think in terms of a scale or continuum rather than in clearly marked either/or categories.”

“Thus,” American Heritage concludes, “we may think of a statement as either logically true or false, but we also know that there are degrees of truthfulness and falsehood.”

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