Ask Language Log: "*I very like"

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From Jonathan Lundell:

The first comment on this performance of the Brandenburg 6 (nice one, btw): "I very like this authentic manner. And I very like first violist. Who is it?" It's from one Artem Klementyev (so Russian?).

So, a question: why can't we say "I very like X"? …when we can do it with, say, truly & really?

Short answer: no one knows, although the point is discussed a lot on the web and to some extent among linguists.

Longer answer: See footnote 18 on p. 585 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

Because there are degree modifiers that combine with adjectives and adverbs but not verbs, some modern grammars assign the items in [29] and [31] to a distinct lexical category called ‘intensifier’. This cannot be regarded as an improvement on the traditional analysis, however, for the number of –v items is very small in comparison with the total number of items that can function as degree modifier in the structure of AdjPs and AdvPs: there is no basis for making a primary category distinction here. The term ‘intensifier’ is also used as a functional term, but again this is no improvement on the traditional ‘degree modifier’. A large proportion of degree adverbs indicate a relatively high degree, but there are a good number that do not, and it is semantically inappropriate to apply the term ‘intensifier’ to the modifiers in phrases like moderately cool, slightly unusual, barely noticeable, etc.: in this book ‘intensifier’ is used only for those indicating a high degree.

In other words,

  1. Everyone agrees that in English there are some degree modifiers, like very, that "combine with adjectives and adverbs but not verbs".
  2. Some people take this as motivation for a special lexical category, perhaps to be called "intensifiers".
  3. Some people (Pullum and Huddleston in particular) disagree that this should be a "primary category distinction", and in any case would like to reserve the term "intensifier" for things that are, well, intensifying.
  4. As far as I know, no one has anything insightful to say about why English has degree modifiers that combine with adjectives and adverbs but not verbs — that's just how it is, apparently. (But I'm not a semanticist, and someone may correct me in the comments.)
  5. But it seems to me that maybe something like the line of analysis in this paper might be tweaked to generate a story (though whether that would be more than a stipulation in formal disguise could be discussed).

And why might a Russian native speaker make this error? English is certainly not the only language with some degree modifiers that don't combine with verbs — thus I don't think that French "*je tres aime cette interprétation" (or "j'aime tres cette interprétation") works. My Russian is too rusty to determine whether there is a similar distinction in that language —  but in any case, an L2 learner of English might not realize that very is not really.

Note that very is happy to combine with some nominals and prepositional phrases used as modifiers or predicative phrases:

11 ways to have a very New York christmas.
First of all, the cologne is very Wall Street lawyer.
This picture is very out of date.
It also offers a very in-depth list for further reading.

Note also that the nonstandard use of very in doge grammar extends to nouns as well as verbs, e.g.:


  1. Surly Duff said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    And yet, "I very much like the first violinist" sounds perfectly grammatical. So the addition of "much" turns an intensifier into a verb modifier?

    I would very much like to see you explain that!

    [No sooner said than done. Much is uncontroversially an adverb, as you can see in sentences like I didn't like the dessert much, but I ate it (or I didn't much like the dessert, but I ate it, where much modifies the verb like. Very can modify adjectives or adverbs. Therefore it can modify much. That makes an adverb phrase very much. And an adverb phrase can modify a verb. I hope that is enough of an explanation. —Geoff Pullum]

  2. NV said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

    In Russian, you can use the word очень (očen', "very") with adjectives, adverbs and verbs. For instance, it's used in the Russian phrase я очень люблю X (ja očen' ljublju, "I really like X").

  3. Bartleby said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

    @Surly Duff: Wouldn't "very" modify "much" in your sentence? "Very much" modifies the verb.

  4. Guy said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    @Surly Duff

    I don't see that much explanation is required. Phrases headed by "much" can be adjuncts, and "much" can take "very" as a modifier. There's no reason to think that "very" not being available as an adjunct should cause any phrase in which it appears in a non-head role to be impermissible as an adjunct. This isn't any different from *"very dog" but "very big dog".
    More difficult to explain is the fact that "much" is usually obligatorily modified or a negative polarity item, but that's a well-known property of "much", and can perhaps be explained by interpreting "much" as having a meaning of some semantically bleached amount.

  5. Guy said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    Though on the topic of weird behavior of "very", it can modify "much" but not it's comparative form "more". Instead we need another much: "much more". And here although we can have "very much more", we can also just have "much more" without any degree modification or negation.

  6. BZ said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

    But "I much like X" (without very) also doesn't work. "I very much like X" is marginal. "I like X much" sounds a bit better than "I much like X", but worse than "I very much like X". "I like X very much" is of course the correct way to say something like this, so somehow there is a combination of "very", "much", and post-modifier vs pre-modifier "much" going on here.

  7. RP said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 2:18 pm

    If it were possible, "*j'aime très cette interprétation" would probably be the correct word order (rather than *"je très aime"), but I don't think it works, either. Google brings up a small number of hits for similar constructions, but at a glance they seem to be from non-native speakers, mostly Russians and Poles (" J'habite a Сheliabinsk. J'étudie la langue française absolument récemment. J'aime très cette langue").

  8. Y said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 2:33 pm

    Nearly my favorite Casablanca exchange (a couple practicing their English before they come to America):

    Mr. Leuchtag: "Liebchen—uh, Sweetness, what watch?"
    Mrs. Leuchtag: "Ten watch."
    Mr. Leuchtag: "Such much!"

  9. Guy said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 3:20 pm


    "I much like X" doesn't work because, as I said, "much" is essentially a negative polarity item with a bunch of other arcane rules (like it can beocome okay if you modify it).

  10. Torrontés Cafayate said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

    Interestingly enough, the equivalent construction in German is perfectly grammatical: "Das Buch gefällt mir sehr".

  11. philip said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 6:27 pm

    I'll have a go at the original question, ie what differences, in their use as adverbs, are there between 'very', 'truly' and 'really'?

    As noted above, the difference is that 'very' as an adverb cannot modify a verb.

    Could this have anything to do with the fact that, in modern English, there is no noun corresponding to 'very' as there is for 'truly' [truth] and 'really' [reality]?

  12. Max Wheeler said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

    "much prefer", "much admire" are OK, though.

  13. Zeppelin said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

    And "I don't much like X" is also perfectly usual…

  14. Andy said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    Can the constraints on these words not be explained by their respective histories? Their behaviour seems to stem from their original function before grammaticalization. In the case of 'très', it derives from the Latin preposition 'trans' and is still sometimes used as a preposition in Old French and beyond. Although it is now solely an adverb, its usage still reflects its historical identity as a word that could combine with nouns, adjectives and adverbs, but not verbs.
    Unlike 'really' and 'truly', 'very' was originally an adjective, not an adverb (late 13th century; from Old French 'verai', 'real, genuine', etc.), and so didn't combine with verbs either; again, this behaviour continued after grammaticalization. (One finds the adverb 'verily' from about the same period; I wonder when and why it became obsolete.)

  15. ErikF said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

    "*Very like" seems not to work, but "quite like" does in the same position (at least in BrE.) The OED shows "quite" (as well as "terribly", "simply", etc.) as a submodifier in this position, whereas "very" isn't given this qualifier; could this perhaps be the difference, or did the OED just miscategorize "very"?

  16. David Morris said,

    February 27, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

    I don't like saying to my students "It just *is*" (or "*isn't*"), but sometimes I have to. I feel slightly better now.

  17. Viseguy said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 12:28 am

    @Y: I very like (очень люблю) that moment in Casablanca, and thanks for reminding us of it. I wonder if the very like usage will become more acceptable now that Путин is calling the shots.

  18. tangent said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 12:54 am

    @Andy, interesting suggestion, but then we have the question of why its adverbation was partial. Because of the morphology, that it was zero-derived, instead of by -ly? Now I have to think of some more adverbs zero-derived from adjectives…

    I've wondered in a different context, is zero-derivation really just like any other type of derivation (which seems to be assumed in its formalization as such), or does it behave at all differently?

  19. Guy said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 1:06 am

    Since "really" works and "very" doesn't, I think it's apparent that any search for an explanation based on semantics is hopeless. This is just one of those things baked into the syntactic properties of the word. I think points based on historical grammatical status like that pointed out by Andy is the path to understanding. Just like how etymology, not semantics, is the answer to why the "a- adjectives" (asleep, awake, afraid, ajar, aghast, etc.) are predicative only.


    Much to my surprise, Google Ngrams shows that the frequency of "verity" has increased over the course of the twentieth century, though I agree that the etymology is probably not particularly synchronically transparent.

  20. Guy said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 1:22 am

    Whoops, it's case sensitive and my phone automatically capitalizes. Searching lower case gives less surprising results

    In any event, intensifying a verb can be perilous for a learner of English. I remember one learner of English who told me "I'm tired a lot" with the intended meaning of "I'm very tired" or "I'm really tired", and not "I'm tired much of the time", which is how I initially interpreted it.

  21. Greg Malivuk said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 8:38 am

    @philip, It seems like it might have more to do with "very" lacking a (current) adjective form. Off

  22. charlotte said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 8:40 am

    picking up on Philip's comment, that truly and really have noun forms, one can say "in truth (or in reality) I like that" instead of truly and really, but of course one can't with very…..

  23. languagehat said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    "I very much like X" is marginal.

    That's not true at all, it's perfectly standard English, and I very much doubt you would feel that way if you gave it more thought.

    I don't like saying to my students "It just *is*" (or "*isn't*"), but sometimes I have to. I feel slightly better now.

    You should embrace "It just *is*" with enthusiasm, because the habit of demanding/providing reasonable-seeming explanations for linguistic facts is one of the main drivers of misunderstanding of language, including both peevery and folk etymologies. There are many, many things we can't understand, and it's best to face up to that fact rather than sweep it under the rug.

  24. Greg Malivuk said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    (sorry for the partial response above)

    @philip, It seems like it might have more to do with "very" lacking a (current) adjective form. With a bit of semantic stretching, "I [adjective]ly like it" usually means approximately "I like it in an [adjective] way", at least for (non-frequency and non-focus) examples that come to mind at the moment. (And accounting for the drift people complain about with "literally" but not with "really" or "truly".)

  25. philip said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 11:50 am

    Greg and Guy: 'very' is an adjective as well, but the lack of an adjectove was my first though for distinguishing them: see here:

    and verity is not a noun connected (anymore) with 'very'. Veritably is the adverb from verity, and veritable is the adjective.

  26. Greg Malivuk said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    Ah, right, I forgot about that adjective use.

    It still seems related to the lack of sense of "in a very way". Even though "very" can modify some nouns, it doesn't modify the sorts of nouns that are modified by adjectives whose adverbs can modify verbs.

    (In addition to "way" and "manner", I mean nouns like "action" and "event", in the sense that an [adjective] event happens [adjective]ly, where 'ly' stands for whatever changes (if any) convert an adjective to its corresponding adverb.)

  27. Greg Malivuk said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    "It was the very event he'd been waiting for."

    So obviously that's not quite it, either.

  28. Mark S said,

    February 28, 2017 @ 9:55 pm

    "I have read your book and much like it." — Moses Hadas

    This is a clever double entendre, but (a) the positive sense isn't quite grammatical, because "much" can't modify verb "like"; and (b) the negative sense isn't right either, because "much" should be "many".

  29. RP said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 3:25 am

    I think the (b) sense is fine. It would be "many" if the pronoun were standing in for a plural phrase such as "many books", but it's "much" if it's standing in for "much writing", "much stuff", "much so-called literature".

  30. Jan Schreuder said,

    March 1, 2017 @ 7:47 am

    and why the following:

    1a I am a great admirer of Obama
    1b I admire Obama greatly

    2a I am a big admirer of Donald Trump
    2b *I admire Trump bigly

  31. philip said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 7:13 am


    for 2a in particular, I have no idea why you – of all people – would be a big admirer of Trumpton Town. :):)

    As for your question (?), bigly is not an adjective.

  32. philip said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 7:13 am

    *doh* adverb

  33. Greg Malivuk said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 8:41 am

    @RP, "many" would mean "many people", as that's the double entendre Mark was referring to.

    @philip, that's presumably the joke, as Trump himself seems to disagree on the lexical status of "bigly".

  34. RP said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    @Greg, thanks for trying to explain, but I'm not sure I follow that. When the phrase "I have read your book, and much like it" already has two meanings (the slightly unidiomatic "I much like it" and the perfectly grammatical "I have read much like it"), why would Mark introduce a third meaning that is completely ungrammatical, so much so as to be nonsensical? Aren't the more obvious two meanings enough? It's not a triple entendre, is it?

  35. RP said,

    March 2, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

    Or did Moses Hadas speak a dialect in which the use of "much" to mean "many" is indeed possible?

  36. philip said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 4:16 am

    Greg – yes I realised that after I posted. Verily, I was being very stupid yesterday.

    But does trump not accept that he is really saying 'big league' when he says 'bigly'?

    Mark/Jeff: Can we have a facility to 'edit' posts after they have been posted???

  37. Robert Coren said,

    March 3, 2017 @ 10:32 am

    @Y: That scene from Casablanca has always bothered me, because I can't figure out what German phrase "such much?" is supposed to represent. I suppose it might be so viel (or soviel), on the supposition that he had learned that "such" was an appropriate translation for German so (and somehow missed that English "so" is sometimes better). But it seems unlikely that he would say "so viel" rather than "so spät".

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