Very not appreciative

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This use of "very not appreciative" caught my eye on Sunday:

“I’m very not appreciative of the way she came in here,” Ted Shpak, the national legislative director for Rolling Thunder, told the Washington Post.

This construction is not in my own dialect; it reminds me of the recent broader uses of "so". ("I'm so not ready for this", which I had perhaps mistakenly been mentally lumping together with "That's so Dick Cheney" or "That's so 1960's".)

I'm not sure what's changing, "very" or "not" or both. I suspect that "not" may be moving into uses previously reserved for "un-".

One fully standard form is "very unappreciative", but that seems to have a different meaning, where someone is not appreciating something they should appreciate (like their mother).

Another fully standard form is "not very appreciative", but that certainly has a different meaning, just negating 'very appreciative' rather than the intended intensification of 'not appreciative'.

To get the intended meaning within my normal range of options I would have to use the wordier "I very much don't appreciate ..". So the new form (if it is indeed new) does seem to be useful.

I would guess that more people can use "so" this way than can use "very" this way. That would suggest that it's "very" that's changing rather than "not". But I'm not sure.


  1. SlideSF said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    It sounds like someone referring to himself in reported speech, another vaguely hip, vaguely meta-, or ironic. Like saying "rolls eyes", instead of just rolling them. It would be so uncool to merely say " I don't appreciate the way she came in here."

  2. Andrew Pendleton said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    Penn Jillette has made a distinction between not believing in God, and believing that there is no God, with the first, he contends, being a passive lack of belief, and the second being an active belief in an absence. I wonder if there's a similar phenomenon here, where "unappreciative" means a lack of appreciation (albeit an extreme lack, hence "very"), as compared to "not appreciative," which is maybe a sentiment of active dislike?

  3. Michelle said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    I have also heard "I am so very not happy about this" and would agree 'not' is moving into the realm of 'un'. We used to say 'uncool' but my teenage niece exclusively says 'not cool', as in "That is so not cool to say that".
    I am a thirtysomething Californian and she's a California teen, I haven't heard it besides in that context.

  4. wb said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:29 am

    As the dad of a kid (who speaks like a teenager), this is what it means, I think.

    not very happy = tad unhappy, but not overtly upset.

    very not happy = the extreme highs of not happy, and hence visibly upset.

  5. Craig Russell said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:49 am

    I would say (maybe?) that what's noteworthy here is the way "not" combines with "appreciative". Logically, to say you're "not appreciative" should only mean you lack the quality of appreciativeness. But what it obviously means here is that you've not only reached the zero level of appreciation, but moved beyond it to a corresponding negative emotion.

    But I guess this is simple litotes, isn't it? Where saying "she's not stupid" not only means she's not stupid, but "she's quite smart". I find 58,100 google results for "very not stupid," and from surveying the first page they seem to be used in this sense (and to go back at least five years). So I suppose the innovation is Indeed a combination of "very" and "not", but it's a quite logical extension of what they each were already doing on their own. The litotes in "not appreciative" is strong enough that it feels like a single adjective with a positive meaning, which can then be modified by "very".

    But I have to say that the google hits I get confirm my gut feeling about this, which is that this use of "very not" still has a pretty high level of jocularity in many of its uses; speakers are using it recognizing the non-standardness in their own words, and playing on that non-standardness for rhetorical effect. But the slide between this and the term gradually coming to be used without this self consciousness is easy to imagine (I feel like I've witnessed this happening with the word "ginormous" in my lifetime, where it was always used tongue-in-cheek ten or twenty years ago, but is now used by many as a straightforward word.)

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    Well, what about in cases where "not" and "un-" seem pretty synonymous, just syntactically different — do we still find "very not Adj"? For instance, as far as I can see, unfriendly and 'not friendly' have no significant difference in meaning. And "very unfriendly" is normal. Do we ever find "very not friendly"? Sounds pretty odd to me. But hmm, yes we do – 27K ghits. Still, that's vs 813 ghits for "very unfriendly". The choice looks to me in that case like it's a matter of style/register, not any difference in semantics.

  7. un malpaso said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:07 am

    Colloquially, I would probably use "really" as the first choice that pops into my head. This may be an 80s thing, or an American thing… i don't know. To me, "very" has a slightly higher-register feel and therefore, slightly more emphatic in context.
    (40/m/white/urban S. USA)

  8. un malpaso said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:08 am

    In other words, "really not" … just to clarify!

  9. Craig Russell said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    Recency illusion in my previous post! Ginormous goes back at least to 1948:

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:55 am

    Craig: Make that 1942.

  11. @boris_tweets said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    Thanks for a great post, Barbara!

    I have to say that while I find "very not appreciative" utterly disgraceful, I am not shocked by "so not ready" at all. I hear it all the time and actually say it fairly often.

    The first question you ask (which word is moving, "not" or "very"/"so"–or both?) is extremely interesting. Obviously, you don't have the answer yet, but I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts as to how one would go about figuring this out. Any suggestions? Can you (or other readers) talk about similar situations in which linguists were able to find out which word had moved?

    As for the second point you raised (the question of why one would ever use such a bizarre phrase and whether or not it conveys a different meaning than close–but grammatically correct–alternatives), I started of thinking that these phrases are only used in very specific instances (like "so not ready"), where the closest correct phrase is just not a good option. It seems like "so not ready" would be a perfect example of this, since "unprepared" and "unready" are hardly ever used; because "so unready" and "so unprepared" are subpar options, "so not ready" ends up being the expression that people use(1).

    But wait a minute, don't we say "so not true" when they could say "so wrong" and "so not fair" when we could say "so unfair"? Both the COCA and I say we do. Maybe, then, one is not just trying to be as "efficient" as possible when picking "so not ready" over "so unprepared"(2).

    I believe "so not [adj.]" has several strengths that are likely to help the adoption of this structure in upcoming years:

    (1) It lets us use simple, strong and short adjectives (the most important word in the phrase) in order to be more convincing, or at the very least more intense:
    – the meaning of "true" is not as foggy as that of "wrong", which is commonly used in its moral sense ("false", another contender, is far less common than "true");
    – for ready, see above;
    – let's also note than positive adjectives are often shorter (if not much shorter) than their negative equivalent;
    (2) It lets us insist on the "not" (which is otherwise hidden within the adjective in "so [neg-adj.]"); "so not ready" is both "[so] [not ready]" and "[so not] [ready]";
    (3) It is often more relevant to the context of the sentence. The phrase "so not [adj.]" is often used in a contact where an individual ∂ or a fact ß is supposed to be [adj.] (ready, true, etc.), whether it is directly stated (ex: "Michelle dad said you pushed her off the bed last night and I know this is true") or indirectly ("You pushed your sister off the bed last night"). Using this very word (in this case, the word "true") then makes even more sense.

    (1) To be fair, though, the COCA only returns 2 results for "so not ready".
    (2) You make a similar point later in your post:
    I would have to use the wordier "I very much don't appreciate .."
    This is of course a tough question to address in one sentence, and I might be wrong, but I like to stay from the whichever option is the simplest is going to be adopted–Occam's Razor doesn't suit language very well. Many not-so-efficient (I didn't say "so not", hehe!) languages keep prospering, and more importantly, language gets us into so much trouble using it that if efficiency really was paramount, we wouldn't where we're at right now. Of course, making sure that most words/phrases aren't a gigantic waste of time and resources is important, but in my opinion it is not a crucial independent variable when considering the dependent variable "evolution of language".

  12. TonyK said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:07 am

    There really seems to be a gap in the language here. How do you say "I very don't like that" in a standard way? (Hungarian can do it.) I would have to say "I don't like that at all". But then how do you say "I very don't appreciate you lending my money to that stupid friend of yours"? Where does the "at all" go?

  13. RP said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:22 am

    In my dialect (I am British), only someone being deliberately pedantic would say that "not very appreciative" is simply a negation of "very appreciative". (You could make it into the negation of "very appreciative" by stressing the word "very", though.) "Not very appreciative" means you don't appreciate it. Similarly, for me, "it's not very good" barely ever implies that it might be quite good, rather than it's not good. "I'm not very happy" means, to me, something very similar to "I'm unhappy".

  14. phspaelti said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:26 am

    @TonyK: There really seems to be a gap in the language here. How do you say "I very don't like that" in a standard way?

    Standard would be "I really don't like it." More modern/colloquial are "totally" and "so".
    "I very much don't like it." is completely fine for me also.

  15. maidhc said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 4:45 am

    Suppose you replace "very" with its cousin "verily". "I'm verily not appreciative …" sounds fairly normal other than a certain Biblical flavor.

  16. pj said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 4:56 am

    For me (BrEng), if you stipulate that I have to use 'at all', then this is fine:
    'I don't at all appreciate you[r] lending my money to that stupid friend of yours'
    I'd be more likely to say it some other way, though:
    'I really don't appreciate…'
    'I absolutely don't appreciate…'
    or I'd just make the 'not' more emphatic by expanding the contraction:
    'I do not appreciate…'
    'Very not appreciative' is very not idiomatic, or even familiar (does that work?), for me.

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    maidhc: But 'verily' doesn't mean the same as 'very'; it means 'truly'. (I believe 'very' at one time meant this as well; when the Prayer Book says 'It is very meet, right and our bounden duty…' 'very' represents Latin vere, which means 'truly'.)

  18. Mai Kuha said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    More on "so":

  19. Dan H said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:34 am


    I think the original post was a bit overgeneral about the use of "not very" but I think what the OP meant when they said that "not very" was a negation of very, rather than an intensification of "not" was that "not very good" (for example) is generally considered weaker condemnation than just "not good".

    So I think you're right that "not very X" means something more than just not (very x) but I think the OP is right that the implication is different to very (not x).

    Weirdly, "not very x" – while it might read literally as saying "not a large amount of x" actually says something more like "a small amount of not x". Which I think is basically what you were saying, now I come to think about it.

    To put it another way, if I had to arrange, say, states of happiness in order, they'd go something like "Very Happy/Happy/Not Very Happy/Not Happy" which is actually a little unintuitive.

  20. Steve F said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    I suspect that 'very' is starting to expand its range of reference in some people's usage. An extreme example – and, due to its ubiquity, a possible cause in British English – is the catchphrase used by Catherine Tate in her persona as Derek Faye, a gay man in denial about his sexuality: 'How very dare you!' An example – one of many – is here:

  21. Rick Sprague said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    In thinking about this, we need to remember that in colloquial speech adjectives pretty much never work like measurements. When we measure height, for example, we do so from zero, but when we talk about height colloquially we imagine a scale from short to tall, with a (vague but non-zero) reference point between. "Very" denotes greater distance from this reference point, not distance from zero, and "not very" denotes proximity to the reference point, though on which side of the scale depends on context, emphasis, and other factors. Thus, "not very happy" means "only slightly happy" or "slightly unhappy". (Its use to mean "very unhappy" is pragmatic politeness, not semantic, I think.) "Very not happy", on the other hand, seems to definitely position us well down the not-happy side of the scale.

    I was trying to think up some example of "very not X" where adjective X denotes a property that actually has a lower bound of zero (that is, it has no opposite adjective), but I couldn't think of any. The closest I could come was a color, e.g. "blue", which depending on your point of view has either multiple opposites (red, green, yellow…) or colorlessness (white/black) as its opposite. "Not very blue" seems meaningful, but I'm not sure "very not blue" makes any sense at all.

  22. Duncan said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    To me, "very not " is euphemistic usage, signaling offense at a level that would ordinarily have had one storming out of the room, terminating the conversation and possibly the relationship. It's a signal that the speaker is still trying to be diplomatic in the face of an offense so great that his instincts tell him to say "Fuck you!" and be gone!

    That the usage "breaks ordinary rules" only underlines the extremity of the situation, both the level of offense and the lengths to which the speaker is trying to go to continue to maintain civil composure and politeness in spite of that offense.

    (I wrote the above before following the link to the WP story including the quote, seeing who it was about and in what context. I hadn't seen previous coverage of the event so had no clue at the time I wrote it, but having now seen the story, it reinforces my viewpoint. I won't spoil it for others who might not have read the story yet by revealing the "she" and the precise context, but the guy is deliberately pulling his punches because he's aware of the potential political fallout, and he's communicating exactly that — that he IS deliberately holding back. The unspoken subtext is that she now /really/ owes an apology, but that he's choosing not to ask for the apology outright, in ordered to give her the ability to pay it back in some other way, presumably as a political favor that he's hinting they may wish to collect on, at some point. Strictly my read of the subtext, of course.)

    (40s male, currently AZ,US, white, Pacific Northwest roots with some European travel, several years in Kenya, and schooling in Colorado and Nebraska, so all over the Western US withs bits of Commonwealth English and environmental ESL from African, Asian and Hispanic origins thrown in too. IOW, I've literally no idea where the regional origins of the above interpretation might be rooted, but it's definitely within my dialect.)

  23. Duncan said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    > I'm not sure "very not blue" makes any sense at all.

    I know of one context where it would make a lot of sense. Imagine a CRT with the blue gun out. "The display was very not blue!" =:^) Outside of that context, however, and other other similarly special contexts such as those involving, say, the Blue Man Group…

  24. lucia said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    Rick Sprague

    but I'm not sure "very not blue" makes any sense at all

    I think it might make sense during an argument about what color something is — or at least "very not red" might make some sense. Suppose a person with red-green color blindness who is in denial (say a faculty member) about his disability insists the three adjacent grad students look at the "red" line. All grad students are trying to figure out which line is "red". Discussion ensues with the faculty member insisting that the grad students look at the "red" line.

    Fourth grad student enters. Asks faculty member to point to the line. The students all say, "That's not red". Faculty member continues to insist it's red. Fourth student reminds faculty member he is color blind and says "That's very not red." Colorblind faculty member says "Oh. That's right. Heh." The other grad students are now clued in to the problem. (This guy's wife sewed labels into his clothes to help him sort colors when dressing in the morning.)

    The purpose of "very not red" is to focus on what color the trace was not.

  25. Trish said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    This question seems related to scalar implicature. Does the construction *not very ADJ* achieve a kind of inverse scalar implicature? The construction is logically consistent with the proposition that the speaker is somewhat ADJ, but is commonly used to suggest that the speaker is not even somewhat ADJ. On the other hand, the construction *very not ADJ* seems logically inconsistent with the proposition that the speaker is somewhat ADJ. Because of this inconsistency with a less definite proposition, it is a stronger term on the same scale as *not very ADJ*.

  26. Mark F. said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    Well, there are (at least) two questions here. There is just the syntactic question of why "very not X" is illegal in what you might call Traditional Standard English but legal in the idiolects of a lot of speakers, and then there's the semantic question of why people feel the need to use it over "not very X". It seems like more people have been talking about the latter.

    I think the sense that "very not X" is wrong was driven by the intuition that "not X" is an absolute, even when X admits gradation. You can be a little hungry or very hungry, but if you are not hungry, then you have framed "hungry" as something that you either are or aren't, and you're saying that you aren't. In this view, "very not X" is wrong for the same reason that (in the eyes of many) "very unique" is wrong. But of course, if X admits gradation then it's easy to construe "not X" as admitting gradation, and once you do, "very not X" becomes available.

    This is totally separate from the issue of how "very not X" differs from "not very X". For that I only add that I think the right analysis of the latter is to first construe it as the negation of "very X", and then reinterpret for pragmatic reasons to mean "actually, rather far from X".

  27. Craig Russell said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    @Rick Sprague

    From a google search for "very not blue":

    I'm not sure about steel tiles, and they'll probably look bad with green and cream unless it's very grey, very not blue, and probably not too dark.

    A couple of pages she doesn't recognise pass by, and she smiles awkwardly, feeling very… Well. Very not blue.

    Daniel Radcliffe does a fantastic job though i do wish they would stop focusing on his very not blue eyes.

    Seeing pictures of this online before I ordered it, I expected it to be different. I pictured it as a light to medium, blue-hued lilac. It is actually a very not blue, medium hued, lilac with a dusty quality.

    Torch lighters emit a very not blue flame that makes cigar toasting a quick and easy task and helps to create a nice looking and even burning stick.

    Oh, and now that it's daytime, you can see even better how very not blue at all the Sacramento River is.

    It seems from this that "very not blue" is used in situations that mean: "Oh, you thought this was going to be blue? Well, surprise! It's not blue at all?" And perhaps that is the sense in a lot of these "very not" constructions: not so much "not X to a high degree" as "emphatically not X".

  28. Damon said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    @Michelle: Are you sure that "not cool" and "uncool" are synonymous? They're not for me — "not cool" expresses some sort of judgment of morals or etiquette. Coming to a party and starting a fight is not cool. And, "Not cool, dude!" is a perfectly clear way to express that.

    Whereas "uncool" just describes things that are unfashionable, like out of date clothes or unpopular varieties of music. There's no element of moral judgment — just aesthetic.

  29. Barbara Partee said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    @@boris_tweets – nice questions about how a linguist would try to work out answers to some of my questions. I'll try to come back to that, but can't today.
    @Lucia — aha, your comments suggest to me that maybe part of what's going on is that "very" is modifying the "not", creating an 'emphatic not' (cf @Craig Russell just above — "emphatically not blue"). Probably the same with "so not". And that's probably a crucial factor: 'not' is a full word that can be stressed, whereas "un-" is just a bound morpheme and only in really narrow contrastive situations (Is he happy or unhappy?) does it get stressed. And there's no way to put any modifier just on the "un-", I'm pretty sure. So I would now change part of my original hypothesis.
    I conjectured that 'not' was possibly becoming more like 'un-' in order to permit [very [not appreciative]] alongside standard [very [unappreciative]. But now I think it's [[very not] appreciative], which is something you can't do with 'un-'.
    And that fits, I think, with what everyone has been saying about the semantics — it's not just part of the scalar stuff (with all its interesting scalar implicatures etc), it seems to be rather an emphatic negative contrast with an 'expected' positive. So the contexts for "very not blue" were all ones where something had been expected or claimed to be blue, or at least somewhat blue. (I guess there's a scalar element too, but whereas 'very unappreciative' is a very low degree of appreciativeness, 'very not appreciative' seems to emphatically state 'not appreciative at all', emphatically "zero".
    But these are just informal remarks on the way toward trying to figure it out — what I've said is still far from an analysis. But I very don't have time today! ;-)

  30. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    I find voice mail greetings that include the phrase "unavailable to take your call" seem a bit awkward, though probably not ungrammatical. I would much prefer to hear "not available to take…" since it is the lack of availability rather than the state of unavailability that is operating. (Is this like "count me out"?) Furthermore, "I am not well enough to play" is much different from "I am unwell enough to play" for example.

  31. hector said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    @ Damon:

    No, at least not originally. Back in the 70s, in the circles I ran in, "that's uncool, man" (said admonishingly), was a reproval for some form of "uncool," i.e. inappropriate, behaviour. Usage may have changed over the decades since, or maybe it varies locally. There seem to be plenty of Google hits associated with bad behaviour.

    Meanwhile, the spell-checker in Firefox is flagging "reproval." Huh?

  32. Glenn Bingham said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    @Craig Russell, who says:

    It seems from this that "very not blue" is used in situations that mean: "Oh, you thought this was going to be blue? Well, surprise! It's not blue at all?" And perhaps that is the sense in a lot of these "very not" constructions: not so much "not X to a high degree" as "emphatically not X".

    Another example with an absolute, rather than relative, scalar base: "Get that ice. It must be ready"
    "It's very not frozen!"

    Incidentally (as much as none of this is part of my "natural" idiolect), "It's very not ice" seems to do just as well with the Noun. And one can't un- the noun.

  33. Glenn Bingham said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    @Mr Fnortner

    Being "unwell enough to play" seems to have no use…unless one can take enjoyment in passing the tissue box. What about, "Am I unwell enough to see the school nurse?" [I prefer "sick."]

    Of course, the point is that the scope of "enough" only extends to the preceding adjective. Very of course, "enough" is a lone wolf among adverbs.

  34. Brett said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    @Damon: I can second Hector's observation about "uncool." Where I grew up in the '80s, "uncool" was a negative term, and "not cool" neutral–the exact opposite of what you describe. When I recently heard "not cool" definitely used as a condemnation, I was rather surprised; I realized had probably been misinterpreting most instances of "not cool" that I had encountered in recent years.

    Of course, even as a kid "uncool" was a fairly mild term of disapproval. I remember some friends and I trying to contain our snickering when an adult used "uncool" as part of a very harsh criticism.

    @lucia: This is OT, but I was recently one of three colorblind professors trying to get a graduate student to tell us which line on a slide he was showing was the red one. The student got pretty flustered; despite our explaining that we were all colorblind, he didn't seem to understand what we were confused about. It took the intervention of another professor with normal color vision to resolve things.

  35. Mr Fnortner said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    @Glenn Bingham, My point was "unwell enough" and "not well enough" are not remotely equivalent (and in fact, "unwell enough" is nonsensical). I like that there is often sufficient difference between "not X" and "unX", even though some constructions with "not X" are odd sounding.

  36. Andrew #3 said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    As someone who has taught students about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar and how linguistics studies the former, I feel weird about my assessment of this construction: I feel like it's wrong, but it's something I use.

    For me, it does violate English grammatical rules and is a clearly marked form, but that's sort of why you use it. It's like "not X" is being treated as a single word (just like with un-), except with something that is clearly a separate word rather than a prefix. (And un- tends to have a contrary meaning, whereas "not" may still be a contradictory, but I'm not sure on this one.)

  37. Rebecca said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 5:04 pm

    A quick glance at a google search of "very not" shows a huge range of adjectives that this occurs with, including "very not pregnant" and "very not IT related".

    For me, these all feel a little odd, but possible. For some reason, some of these are somewhat improved by adding "much" and a strong emphasis on "not". "very much not pregnant" and "very much not IT related".

  38. Chandra said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    I agree with wb and Duncan's take on it. I use this phrasing occasionally myself (knowing perfectly well that "not very" is the standard) when I want to emphasize how very much I am not X – as Duncan said, to sort of consciously bring attention to how not X I am by intentionally using a non-standard phrasing.

    I'm a mid-30s Canadian, FWIW.

  39. Chandra said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

    Also, I'm not convinced about the "not" being used as equivalent to "un-" here. I hear people say things like "I am very not cool with this"; I doubt that they actually mean "I'm very uncool with this".

  40. Joe said,

    June 1, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

    It's just a negation, like un- in a lot of circumstances. The way I see it is with parenthesis for order of precedence:

    I'm (not very) appreciative.

    I'm very (not appreciative)

    They don't mean the same thing, it's a subtle difference. Or at least that's how I use it and how my friends use it. Seems like a young person thing to me. I'm 22 and from Portland, Oregon.

    They do mean uncool, at least if you take uncool to be equivalent to "not cool". Which I do at least.

  41. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 12:59 am

    I see consensus is against me, but in my gut – as I use this sort of construction as part of normal speech – I know it's [very [not appreciative]] and [so [not ready]]. I'm happy enough with Ms. Partee's semantic analysis of the intensifier+negator, but I don't think the syntactic structure is parallel because 1. the phrase after the intensifier does not have to be negated (see below) and 2. it is possible to do with many intensifiers, not just "so" and "very" although those make for the most conspicuous ones.

    The formula is subject – copula – intensifying adverb – phrase, where the phrase is standing in place of a one-word adjective, and need not be formed as a proper modifier phrase taken by itself. That is, you can use the formula to derive a modifier from a phrase that wouldn't otherwise be one most of the time. This is what makes "so 1960's" and "so Dick Cheney" tick. They plop "Dick Cheney" etc. into an adjective slot in the everyday template "that's so ADJ" (or similar). Of course that's just a property the construction has, it need not be strongly involved in every use.

    But I feel that the following examples that lack negation are still of the same basic species:

    – I am so over it already.
    – We are so going to do that.
    – I'm quite on a roll.
    – He's very into anime.
    – Are you quite done?
    and even
    – How over her are you?

    Meanwhile… just last week my aunt took exception when I said "I've been pretty on top of things lately", causing a minor dinner table argument, because to her it could only mean looking nice while atop something! Despite the fact she's familiar with "on top of things" as a way to express being with it, on the ball, etc. And immediately I saw it was a nonstandard thing to say, but I cannot say I noticed that before she pointed it out. So it wasn't language play.

  42. lisa said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 1:02 am

    I recently did a little summary of "so" in my own blog:
    (I don't know how to make them display part 1 and part 2 in order, but you can read them backward without losing the effect.)

  43. George said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 3:31 am

    @ Mr. Fnortner: I don't think 'unwell enough' is nonsensical as long as the context is one in which being sufficiently unwell is a requirement to do something or to have something happen. "Are you unwell enough to get off school?" sounds perfectly normal to me.

    On the 'very not x' construction, it's not in my ideolect as a standalone but I can imagine using it as a follow-up. "So you're not well?" – "Believe me, I'm very not well." Otherwise, to me, it sounds like the sort of thing Lola (loquacious six-year-old star of the Charlie and Lola books and TV series) would say.

  44. George said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    Slightly odd constructions – that nonetheless convey meaning prefectly – are the distinguishing characteristic of how Lola speaks. It can be fascinating to think about just why they don't 'work'. In case you're wondering, I have young children.

  45. Ellen K. said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    Seems me that it's not that "unwell" and "not well" are all that different. The difference is when you stick them in a larger phrase, with the scope of "un-" versus "not".

    I'm not well
    I'm unwell.

    I think those are basically equivalent.


    I'm not well enough to play.
    Here, "not" negates "well enough to play".

    I'm unwell enough to play.
    Here, "un-" negates only "well".

    A huge difference. The difference in scope makes the two in a sense opposites.

  46. Mark F. said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

    Certainly "not dead" and "undead" are different . . .

  47. Chandra said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    @Joe: "They do mean uncool, at least if you take uncool to be equivalent to "not cool". Which I do at least."

    "Uncool" to me means "dorky, awkward, unfashionable", whereas the sense of "not cool" intended in "I'm very not cool with this" is "not okay, not approving".

  48. WillSteed said,

    June 3, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    I could use a construction like this, but only in really informal conversation. It seems to me a kind of a Buffy(the vampire slayer)-like thing. It would have to be in response to a comment like "You're not appreciative of this, are you?", so it would have to be the repetition of the verb phrase, with 'very' modifying the whole thing.

    It reminds me of one of the odd constructions that come up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    (talking about whether to continue dating or not)
    Willow: "I'd still…, if you'd still…"
    Oz: "Oh, I'd still. I'd very still."
    Season 2, Ep 15 "Phases"
    (is it bad that I know this from memory?)

    The construction makes perfect sense to me, but I'd only ever expect the second part (i.e. Oz's reply) as a response to the first part, where Willow fills in the gaps with a meaningful pause. Oz leaves out the pauses, but it makes sense because of the context. The addition of "very" is a big thing here.

  49. Glenn Bingham said,

    June 3, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    @Ellen K
    I follow you, but also consider:

    I'm not well enough to play.
    I'm unwell enough to play. (…leave school)
    I'm not unwell enough to play. (…leave school)

    One negation has scope over the entire phrase, but the other over the adjective or maybe, as I originally suggested, the adjective and associated adverb.

    I'm not sufficiently motivated to stand. =~ I'm insufficiently motivated to stand. (…so I won't)
    I'm not insufficiently motivated to stand. (…so I will)

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