Very (adverb)

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Many adjectives can be modified by the adverb 'very' to indicate the possession of the relevant quality or characteristic to a high degree, e.g., 'Jane is very intelligent', 'These suitcases are very heavy', 'The countryside Is very beautiful at this time of year', and 'That lake is very deep'. (The technical term used by grammarians is that 'very' in this usage is an intensifier.)

However, many adjectives cannot be modified by 'very' (or only in certain special contexts - see below). Here, in alphabetical order, are some of them: absurd, abysmal, appalling, awful, correct, dead, delicious, disgraceful, disgusting, excellent, furious, hexagonal, hurt, illegal, impossible, injured, irate, known, octogenarian, outraged, outrageous, perfect, ridiculous, revolting, starving, superb, terrified, triangular, wonderful, wounded.

The reasons why these adjectives cannot be modified by 'very' differ from case to case: at least four types of reason need to be distinguished.

  • The most obvious reason is that the relevant quality or characteristic does not admit of degrees. For example, all triangular figures must satisfy the conditions for being a triangle, i.e., must be three-sided rectilinear plane figures, and it cannot be the case that of the figures which satisfy these conditions some satisfy them to a greater degree than others, or to a high degree - all triangular figures satisfy these conditions equally. For similar reasons we cannot say 'very hexagonal' and 'very octogenarian'.
  • Some adjectives have as part of their meaning that the limit to possession of a particular quality or characteristic has already been reached. For example, what is perfect is already as good as it can be, and cannot be made better to become 'more perfect' or 'very perfect'.
  • Some adjectives have 'very, extremely, or to a high degree' as part of their meaning, and this seems be the reason why they cannot be modified by 'very'. Thus 'starving' means 'very hungry', 'irate' means 'very angry', and 'abysmal' means 'extremely bad', and hence while we can say 'He is very hungry', 'He is very angry', and 'That is very bad', we cannot say 'He is very starving', 'He is very irate', or 'That is very abysmal'. Similar remarks may explain why 'superb', 'wonderful', 'excellent', 'appalling', 'outraged', 'outrageous', and 'ecstatic' cannot be modified by 'very'.
  • Some adjectives denote qualities or characteristics which admit of degrees and which it is therefore possible to possess to a high degree, but this possibility cannot be expressed by the use of 'very' - or by the use of 'very' on its own. Someone may, e.g., have either superficial or life-threatening injuries, but in the latter case we cannot say that he is very injured: we have to say that he is seriously or severely or badly injured - or very seriously, very severely or very badly injured. Similar points apply to 'wounded' and 'hurt' - though, interestingly, 'very wounded' and 'very hurt' are possible when the pain or harm is not physical but psychological - as in 'He was very hurt by their refusal to speak to him' and 'The bitterness of the divorce left her feeling very wounded'. Again, we cannot say of a person who is known to a great many others that he is very known: we have to say that he is well known, or very well known.

The above explanations certainly cover many of the cases in which an adjective cannot be modified by 'very', but the impossibility of using 'very' with some of the adjectives on our list - e.g., awful, ridiculous, absurd, disgusting, revolting, disgraceful - still remains unexplained.

Final note: 'Very' may be used with some of the adjectives on our list in exclamations of the form 'How very ....!' - e.g., 'How very delicious!', 'How very disgraceful!' - but expressions of this form are unlikely to be needed in academic writing.

For 'very' and 'so' see So - that - very. See also Very (adjective).