English English language Grammar Usage

“Very” similitude

Q: My mother, an old-school English teacher/grammarian, insisted that it was incorrect to say “very amused.”  She said that it should be “very much amused.”

A: Both of these sentences—“He was very amused” and “He was very much amused”—are perfectly good English. (“He was much amused” is fine, too, for that matter.)

Your mother was thinking of an old prohibition against “very” that first reared its head in the late 19th century and was criticized even then.

Although you can still find a few sticklers who haven’t heard the word, that old taboo has long been discredited by language authorities.

Why did it rear its head in the first place? The reasoning goes something like this:

Since “very” doesn’t modify verbs (only adjectives and adverbs), it shouldn’t be used right before a verb’s past participle, like “amused.”

When “very” appears with a past participle, the critics said, an adverb like “much” should be inserted so that “very” modifies “much,” not the participle.

That’s the argument, and because of it some language commentators of the past have objected even to usages like “We were very annoyed” and “I am very concerned.”

But fortunately modern usage authorities have brought common sense to the rescue.

Words like “amused,” “annoyed,” and “concerned” are indeed the past participles of verbs (“amuse,” “annoy,” “concern”).

But in sentences like the ones above they’re also adjectives—the kind of adjectives that are formed from past participles. So there’s nothing wrong with “very amused” and the rest.

We’re more likely to use “very” with a participial adjective having to do with a condition, feeling, mental state, and the like—“bored,” “amused,” “relaxed,” “surprised,” “mistaken,” etc.

And the participle is often used passively—that is, with a form of “be,” as in “was very mistaken,” “am very surprised,” “were very bored,” and so on.

Past participles like those have firmly established themselves in the wide family of English adjectives. It’s become natural to see, hear, and use them with “very.”

Some other past participles, though, haven’t yet reached this point, as R. W. Burchfield points out in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.).

“There are many passive participles which by their very nature are incapable of being qualified by either much or very,” Burchfield writes, citing “defeated,” “finished.” “forced,” “located,” “undetected,” and “unsolved.” 

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests, however, that English speakers could even be “very”-ing words like those one day.

“The movement of past participles into adjective function—based on premodification by very—began in the 17th century,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

This is “a continuing process,” M-W’s editors write, and “participles that sound awkward with very today may sound fine in another generation.”

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