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Use of very as an adjective is (in my experience) most frequently attested in phrases like

...the very person I was looking for.

To use adjective very with the indefinite article sounds quite bizarre in this case:

?...a very person I was looking for.

But consider this sentence, where indefinite a is used:

Visualizing a very transformation of the master-slave relation, Thomas presses further: the slave is brother to the master, even doubly a brother.

OED treats the two uses as separate senses of the word, with the following definitions:

(first use):      With limitation (usually expressed by the or a possessive) to particular instances
(second use): Really or truly entitled to the name or designation

Here are two respective examples quoted in OED:

What would you say to me now, and I were your verie, verie Rosalind? (1616)

Thence we went into Queen Mary's room, and saw that beautiful portrait—that very queen and very woman. (1857)

Clearly, the difference in meaning between the two senses is quite light, and it seems to me like a kind of difference which is recurrent enough to have its own term. What is the proper term? Are there other English words having similarly related pairs of senses? And lastly, is OED jumping the gun in treating these as two senses? Could the difference in meaning instead be due to the choice of determiner?

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I haven't figured out how to parse your transformation example yet. Can I replace very with veritable? I guess that's it, but it just seems wrong to me in that sentence. –  Jim Jan 19 '13 at 5:54
    
@Jim I did a double take when reading the sentence myself. i wondered if the author was calquing from latin ipse. i think the veritable would give the same meaning. –  jlovegren Jan 19 '13 at 6:00
    
Perhaps "mere" is relevant? –  Lucas Jan 20 '13 at 4:51
    
I'm not sure I know how to analyze anything lightly. –  Barrie England Jan 20 '13 at 19:07
1  
@BarrieEngland good one. –  jlovegren Jan 20 '13 at 20:34
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2 Answers

Could the difference in meaning instead be due to the choice of determiner?

I think that with the first case, the very combines with the article in doing the determining. Comparing "the man" and "the very man", in both of these we're informed that there is only one particular man. In the first, "the" does this job, while in the second "the very" does.

Likewise with a possessive, it emphasises the determining role of the possessive. "My very..." emphasises the my, not what follows.

In the second case, very is emphasising the appropriateness of the choice of term. Comparing "a transformation" and "a very transformation", in both we're informed that there is a transformation. In the first, "transformation" does this on its own, while in the second very modifies transformation so that "very transformation" does this while also gainsaying any objection to the claim.

Not only are they different senses, but they are doing very different jobs in each clause.

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The way I understand it, there is a significant difference between both senses:

In the first sense (exact), very indicates a specific instance of something as opposed to any other. An indefinite article would be contradictory.

The very person... is this exact person and no one else.

"What would you say to me now, and I were your verie, verie Rosalind? (1616)"... I am that exact Rosalind that you were speaking of earlier

The second sense (true essence, veritable) is quite different from the first:

"Thence we went into Queen Mary's room, and saw that beautiful portrait—that very queen and very woman. (1857)"... Queen Mary is the true essence of a queen and the true essence of a woman.

Hope this helps.

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