If you get yourself lost in a dense forest does that make you pretty dense? Tim Bowen explores the various collocations of this versatile (and sometimes offensive) adjective.

In the sense of ‘growing very close together’, dense collocates with a number of nouns.

We can talk about dense woodland, dense undergrowth, dense vegetation, dense jungle or dense forest. In all cases, there is an idea of the trees or plants growing very close together and the area in question being difficult to access or pass through. Apart from plants, living creatures (including humans) in close proximity to each other can be described in phrases containing the word dense, as in a dense network of towns and cities or a dense black cloud of flying insects.

Gas or smoke in which the particles are so close to each other that it is difficult to see through it can also be described as dense, as in ‘Dense fog affected many roads and airports over the weekend, arriving just in time for the Christmas getaway’ or ‘Dense clouds of volcanic ash continue to spew out of the volcano’.

Care should be taken when applying the word dense to population, however. Dense can also mean stupid, as in ‘He’s a nice man but he can be a bit dense at times’. If we say a particular city has a dense population, it could imply that the people living there are not very bright. This can be neatly avoided by using the adverb densely and referring to densely populated cities, countries or regions, as in ‘Malta is Europe’s most densely populated country’ rather than ‘The population of Malta is very dense’, which might cause offence.