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Does using vastly to mean to a [very] great degree; extremely in contexts not involving measurement or comparison, now sound common and idiomatic to British ears, or is it still likely to be considered objectionable, or at least controversial, by a majority of educated native speakers of British English?

vastly

The use of vastly to mean "to a great degree" in contexts not involving measurement or comparison has been criticized as an affectation, especially in British English. Such use is common and idiomatic in American English (emphasis is mine):

The soil is a vastly complex ecosystem --Barry Commoner, Columbia Forum, Spring 1968

I am aware that I have vastly oversimplified some of the most complicated questions --Richard Neuhaus, Harper's, October 1971

In contexts of measure or comparison, where it means by much, by a great deal, as is vastly improved, a vastly larger audience, vastly is still in regular use (emphasis is mine.) Where the notion of measure is wanting, and it means no more than 'exceedingly, extremely, very' as in I should vastly like to know, it was fashionable in the 18c. (e.g. The City ... was vastly full of People--Defoe, 1722. This is all vastly true--E. Burney, 1782. A'nt you come vastly late?--Sheridan, 1799), but became less common as time went on, and is still now in restricted use.

Here are a few sourced examples of such uses of vastly, which, according to M-W and Fowler, might sound (or should I say, should sound) objectionable to many native speakers of British English:

I desired by means of this voice to give the impression that the story being told was enormously old and vastly true. Penguin Random House

They will vastly appreciate it and will cooperate with you more fully. As a teacher, you must be able to think fast and adjust lesson plans as the occasion demands.

Dude, the internet is vastly full of people who know more than you and have called your bluff. (Source: ft86club.com)

I had plenty of time and did not need to stick to a schedule - if the train was vastly late (i.e. more than three hours late) it did not bother or worry me, or interfere with my plans. (Source: NYC reviewer on TripAdvisor)

The account of coercion here is vastly oversimplified.

This is a vastly complex issue.

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    I presume that you mean affectation, not affection! I tried amending it, but the edit is too small to be accepted via that route. – Captain Cranium Mar 27 '16 at 11:24
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    From some experiments with Google Ngrams, it appears that vastly isn't actually used any differently in AmE and BrE. – Peter Shor Mar 27 '16 at 12:04
  • Blimey, those last, um, couple examples sound terrible and I'm American. Vast should be used with ideas that are thought of as having scope. Things can be complex, and their scope vast, but their complexity can not be vast. Compare Ngrams for highly-, exceedingly- and vastly complex. Also try gross- and vast oversimplification. I found an early occurrence of vast oversimplification from 1913 - The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Horace Barnett- which could explain how it became commonplace. At best, I'd call it a rhetorical device- throwing down the gauntlet, as it were. – Phil Sweet Mar 28 '16 at 3:34
  • Noncountables can have a vast quantity or vast amount, such as sugar, or a vast sea of spilt pasta. A vast herd, but not a vast number of zebras. An array can be vast, but not the multiplicity of its elements. Improvement can be vast if it is not readily measurable, but I would not use vast with accuracy, which is measurable in a countable way. So I'm a bit confused by the posted definition that speaks of involving measurement or comparison. Vast tends to be used when measurement is an unattractive prospect. – Phil Sweet Mar 28 '16 at 11:39
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+50

I didn’t know that it was considered ‘objectionable, or at least controversial’! To me it sounds entirely idiomatic, conveying a sense of something being not merely immense, but exaggeratedly, astonishingly and perhaps inappropriately immense: ‘to an exceedingly great extent or degree’, as thefreedictionary has it. At first glance ‘exceedingly great’ seems tautological, but at times that is the point: bigness is one thing; mind-blowing bigness is notable for that additional reason.

Perhaps my favourite instance is from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Space [says the Guide] is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.’ That is from a magnificently literate 1978 UK comedy series, broadcast on the tremendously proper channel BBC Radio 4. From then until now I have never heard anyone criticise Douglas Adams’s use of ‘vastly’ here.

I would be willing to wager that the most common current usage of ‘vastly’ is in the expression ‘vastly overrated’: this is smoothly used as the single example in this definition of overrated at the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.

The expression ‘vastly complex’ is also very common, e.g. used perfectly naturally in a discussion of human groups systematically observing the world in order to establish policies in interacting with it (Kenneth E Wilkening, Acid Rain Science and Politics in Japan, p11).

I have also come across ‘vastly complex’ pretty regularly in hardcore Systems Analysis, where complexity is par for the course (the whole point of Systems Analysis), so vast complexity also has a place.

Two systems-related examples:

1 Blogger dr24hours describes him/herself as a systems engineer and health care researcher, and says the following (with my emphasis) in a 19/07/12 blog post entitled ‘Applications of Systems Theory’:

The systems which produce and publish scientific knowledge are vastly complex and interrelated, and form a complex system.

2 At the University of Queensland, Brendan Markey-Towler (Ph.D student) and John Foster (Professor of Economics) published their 2013 paper entitled ‘Understanding the causes of income inequality in complex economic systems’. They say (my emphasis):

It is argued that such a complex systems approach (despite being vastly simplified here) provides a superior basis for understanding income inequality compared to standard economic analysis. (p1)

However, in the context of the vastly complex and adaptive system that is the economy [...] (p2)

Kahneman (2003) noted that the perception of stimuli largely depends on the ‘availability’ of certain bits of information within a vastly complex situation. (p11)

I should note that I am a native speaker of British English, with loooong experience of other Englishes both literary and academic across a number of disciplines. From that standpoint I would always have said that ‘vastly’ is the kind of term that is easily prone to hyperbolic overuse (a bit like ‘literally’), at which point it would indeed seem blunderingly affected, but that using it judiciously can make a certain kind of point perfectly well.

  • +1 Also, I wouldn't consider The soil is to a great degree a complex ecosystem an improvement. Arguably, it doesn't even convey quite the same idea, with to a great degree possibly implying but not fully. – Lawrence Mar 27 '16 at 12:08
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    @Lawrence Good point.Also, in thinking about this, I am starting to wonder about sidelong strategies for smuggling a degree of personal perspective into academic English. I mean, we only really need to be told that soil is an ecosystem. If we understand that statement, then we can easily infer that that means complexity, and vastly is entirely redundant. But part of the writer's mission is to engage our sense of wonder, not simply to tell us drily true things. I suppose that when I write about some text or other being (say) surprising or extravagant I am doing something similar. – Captain Cranium Mar 27 '16 at 12:46
  • I don't think vast plays much of a roll in idioms. The idioms stem from expressing time or some other quantity in spacial terms. Length of time, expanse of time, span of time. Any of those can be vast. But I think you need to be much more careful with a vast period of time or a vast number of years. In these last two, you are pointing to the inconvenience of measuring them more so than the magnitude. I would try to use vast with collective nouns. A vast herd of zebras vs a vast number of zebras. A vast array vs a vast number of elements. I don't like it much as a substitute for multiplicity. – Phil Sweet Mar 28 '16 at 11:37

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