Anecdote: Write 'damn' instead of 'very'. The editor will strike out the word, 'damn'. (William Allen White 1935)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 18 12:57:46 UTC 2012

Bill Mullins pointed to an article on Buzzfeed about "Indispensable
Writing Tips From Famous

LH commented about tip number 14:
> No doubt, but I think we have an explanation for a lot of modern
> literature.  Contemporary authors must be following Mark Twain's
> (purported) dictum in #14:
> "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."
> Anymore, there are no editors, so this strategy leaves in all
> the "damn"s, not to mention the "fucking"s.

On the Wombats list yesterday there was a question about this quote
attributed to Mark Twain. S. M. Colowick said: "A lot of people think
William Allen White, longtime editor of the Emporia Gazette, first
said or wrote it." Colwich pointed to a Google Books snippet in a 1961
book by William Norwood Brigance.

Here are two different versions of the anecdote dated 1935 and 1946 in
which the advice is ascribed to William Allen White.

Cite: 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)

[Begin excerpt]
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

"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."
[End excerpt]

Cite: 1946 December 19, Orrville Courier Crescent, [Freestanding short
item], Page 6, Column 3, Orrville, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

[Begin excerpt]
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."
[End excerpt]

The Lethbridge Herald in Canada printed the same story in 1947. The
Lethbridge Herald acknowledged the Kansas City Star for the story.

Cite: 1947 February 27, Lethbridge Herald, Left Hand Corner, Start
Page 1, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Lethbridge, Alberta. (Newspaper

In Google Books a snippet of "Trucking news" with a GB date of 1947
attributed this story to "Brock Pemberton, quoted in the Kansas City
Star". I have not seen "Trucking news" on paper and so this data may
be unreliable.

Matches in HathiTrust indicate that the story appeared in The Reader's
digest, Volume 50, 1947 on page 112. But HathiTrust does not reveal
the month. The sentence "Brock Pemberton quoted in Kansas City Star"
appears on page 112.

GenealogyBank has the archives of the Kansas City Star (Kansas City,
Missouri) between 1880-1941. I cannot find the story in this archive.
It probably appeared after 1941.

Here is a bonus cite: In 1917 William Allen White was connected to a
different story featuring the words "damn" and "very".

Cite: 1917 December 6, Watertown Daily Times, [Freestanding short
item], Page 4, Column 3, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
[Begin excerpt]
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."
[End excerpt]


The American Dialect Society -

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