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?
- Per Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, ed. 1993),
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
- Per Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. 2004),
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:
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.
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.