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I have the sentence:

Who wrote the very first dictionary ever?

Is it any different from

Who wrote the first dictionary ever?

I don't get how something could be more first.

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4  
Another example is "Last Christmas, I gave you my heart But the very next day, You gave it away" ;) –  lukas Jun 21 '12 at 22:09
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@lukas: This year to save me from tears I'll give it to someone special ... :) –  naveen Jun 23 '12 at 17:05
    
@lukas ' example really nails it. Adding the emphasis to the fact that it was that next day. Other answers confirm that's the intention. –  JoeTaxpayer Feb 3 '13 at 1:38

7 Answers 7

up vote 29 down vote accepted

It just places greater emphasis on the first instance of whatever it is being a big deal. For that matter, ever in that sentence is used in exactly the same role; "who wrote the first dictionary?" also has the same denotative meaning.

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In this case, very is used as an adverb. It adds emphasis and acts as an intensifier.

Other than that, there is no difference between the two.

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The thrust of the question seems to me to be that one cannot intensify ‘first’. –  Mark Dominus Apr 9 at 14:27

The difference is not in the denotation of the question (either will elicit the same answer) but in the affect - which is just as important a component of language, if harder to define and quantify.

Any correct answer to one of them will be a correct answer to the other, and any answer which does not satisfy one will fail to satisfy the other. But the speaker is conveying some emotion, or how they value the information, by the choice of question.

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Typically, the "very" will be used to add emphasis (such as in your example), but it can also clarify the scope of the question.

"When did you have your first cup of coffee?" could refer to your first cup of the day, or the first cup in your life. By contrast, "When did you have your very first cup of coffee?" will almost always be interpreted as referring to the first cup of your life.

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6  
As another example, "Who were the first people to live here?" "The British were." "Who were the very first people to live here?" "The Haida were." The "very" indicates that there are no implicit filters on your question. –  Dean Jun 21 '12 at 21:11
    
Were I able to upvote twice, this would be the rare case I would. Great point! Welcome to the community, Allan! –  RiMMER Jun 24 '12 at 0:49

They are not exactly the same, but they are almost the same.

In this specific example, the "first dictionary" could be answered include only objects that called themselves a dictionary, or were called a dictionary.

The extra emphasis in the "very first dictionary ever" would imply you want to include anything that also served as a dictionary, even if it isn't normally called as such.

For example, the "first computer" is often considered to be the ENIAC, because it was the "first general-purpose electronic computer", which is the type of computer we all use nowadays. However, the "very first computer ever" would include adding machines - a mechanical, single-purpose computer.

EDIT: To define what I mean more precisely, the "first foo" generally means the first foo that exists in the modern sense of the word, while the "very first foo ever" includes versions that predate its modern form.

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I don't think this is necessarily true. It might be, but I think your analysis is too specific. –  Colin Fine Jun 21 '12 at 18:38
    
@ColinFine Specific to the example objects/these two cases, or something else? –  Izkata Jun 21 '12 at 18:40
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I mean that this is one possible reason for using the emphatic form, but there could be other reasons. –  Colin Fine Jun 22 '12 at 12:07

In well-edited writing, “very” is superfluous when used with an adjective, like “first,” that is natively superlative. Also in this category: “very best,” “most unique.”

In your sentence, the word “ever” is also superfluous. The best construction is:

Who wrote the first dictionary?

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Emphasis and tone, when it comes to first and the very first. They are not equal, but similar. But, there is an interesting distinction when it comes to the 'the last' and 'the very last'. Even though last and first are terminal concepts, 'the first' is the past and static, where 'the last' is in the future and changeable. So, 'the last' could mean 'the last' in the past with the possibility to occur in the future, where as the 'the very last' could mean the intent or expectation that 'the last' of the past will never occur again.

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