Here are several questions from DailyWritingTips.com readers about the wording of various phrases, followed by my responses.
1. In a book I just read, the author twice uses the expression “least worse.” I understand what he means, but this strikes me as a lousy neologism, and I sense that it is unjustifiable under “the rules” — yet I am unable to devise an alternative that isn’t wordy or top-heavy. Can you suggest something?
I came up with several more specific analogues: “least onerous,” “least egregious,” and “least unfortunate.” I suppose the reason these are acceptable and “least worse” isn’t is that worse, unlike the others, is a comparative adjective (“least bad” is better but still awkward) linked with a word denoting the most minimal amount. I’d use an appropriate noncomparative adjective such as the three I listed in the first sentence of this paragraph in place of worse.
2. What does very really mean? In “John held up a very full bucket,” if a bucket is full, then how is a very full bucket any more full? Even worse is “very, very”: A very, very full bucket must be even “fuller” than the very full one.
In formal, straightforward usage, very is almost invariably superfluous, but it has its place in more colloquial language. For example, it’s appropriate in a remark about a bucket containing an overflowing liquid or a heaped solid substance: “That’s a very full bucket!”
3. I have a question about the phrase “graduating high school” (or college). I have always thought that high schools and colleges were already graduated—with, for example, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. Should the construction be “graduated from” rather than simply graduated?
Yes. “Graduated high school” and similar phrases are holdovers from a twentieth-century effort to truncate the earlier usage “was graduated from,” but the effort was taken too far. “Graduated high school” occurs at times, but “graduated from high school” is standard.