Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In Hamlet, when Hammy Jr. asks Polonius whether a cloud looks like a whale, Polly replies,

Very like a whale.

In contemporary English, however, "very like ..." feels ungrammatical. You instead have to epenthetically say "very much like ...".

Interestingly this restriction doesn't seem to apply to some similar constructions; I find the following all acceptable:

  • "Very whale-like" (PP replaced with adjective)
  • "Very similar to a whale" (synonymous phrasal preposition)
  • "Really like a whale" (synonymous adverb)
  • "Exactly like a whale", "Truly like a whale", "Somewhat like a whale" (different adverb)
  • "Nothing like a whale" (adverb replaced with a word of arguable lexical class)
  • "Very near a whale" (different preposition)
  • Cerberus pointed out (in chat) that "That is so very like you" is also acceptable (different argument to preposition)

But these still unacceptable:

  • *"Very by a whale", *"Very in a whale", *"Very inside a whale", *"Very toward a whale" (different preposition)
    • But "Directly by/in/inside/toward a whale" are fine.

What determines whether "very" can modify a prepositional phrase?

share|improve this question
    
@tchrist: Then there was Jonah, who was very much into a whale. :^) –  J.R. Sep 27 '12 at 10:49
add comment

3 Answers

M-W.com says of this usage of like, which is an adjective and not a preposition:

3 like [adjective]

1a : the same or nearly the same (as in appearance, character, or quantity) [suits of like design] —formerly used with as, unto, of [it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren — Heb 2:17 (Authorized Version)]

1b chiefly British : closely resembling the subject or original [the portrait is very like]

Very like a whale is perfectly grammatical in contemporary English. There's nothing wrong with it at all.

Similar to is not a phrasal preposition; it's an adjective phrase because, as stated above, like is an adjective and not a preposition. Grammatical terminology is not easy; it's often misunderstood and misused; and it's often disputed by different schools of linguistics. The names of parts of speech, however, are rarely disputed -- except, perhaps, for a few like particle and adverb. What is more important than the part-of-speech label, however, is the function of the word in the sentence.

share|improve this answer
    
But parts of speech are sometimes disputed, and this is a typically disputed area, I believe. See What is the lexical class of the word 'worth' when used in a sentence like “Is this apple worth $3?”. –  Cerberus Sep 27 '12 at 6:20
1  
@Cerberus: I agree that parts of speech are sometimes disputed, so I said "rarely disputed -- except...". I also don't trust CGEL as far as I can throw it: like not very far. I don't find Huddleston & Pullum persuasive in their arguments, especially the gave it to John and I argument. I found a web page that says: Like is a preposition, like this example. But I would argue that this is a solecism: it should be ...as in this example". Because very like a whale is a simile & means very similar to a whale, whatever part of speech like is, its usage rules are unique? –  user21497 Sep 27 '12 at 9:00
1  
Right, H&P certainly have their flaws. They make some (fairly arbitrary) choices and then proclaim all alternatives heretical. They also like changing and discarding conventional terms just for the heck of it. I think their introduction shows they have certain political motivations, like bashing style books. –  Cerberus Sep 27 '12 at 15:26
1  
@Cerberus: I enjoy bashing style books, especially the APA's. I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea of a style manual, just with the plethora that writers & editors have to deal with every day. If there were only one, we could all learn it by heart, know for certain what's "proper" for publishing, and not believe (as some do) that style books have anything to do with what's correct or grammatical or standard in everyday language. –  user21497 Sep 27 '12 at 21:38
    
@Cerberus: + 1 million –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '13 at 11:33
show 1 more comment

“Very out of the way”

It is a bit tough to find cases of very modifying individual prepositions, but it is easy to find cases of very modifying entire prepositional phrases as a unit, just as it does other adjectives and adverbs.

  • I think it’s very out of character for him.
  • Things can be very out of place.
  • Or very out of date.
  • And very out of the way.
  • They are very on top of music and very adamant about what they carry.
  • I just really was very on the edge. Very on the edge, for a while.
  • He’s very off his rocker today.
  • She is really very behind the times, isn’t she?
  • You’re not very with it today, are you?

Sometimes you can use it to mean “very much” or “very far”.

  • Are you for Obama? Yes, I’m a little bit for him, just not very for him.
  • Are you against the draft? Yes, I’m very against it.
  • Is that over your head? Yes, but not very over.
  • Walk down the street past my house, but not very past it.
  • If you can be more into something, you can be very into it. Is there anything you’re less into?
  • No thank you, that whole scene is very beneath me.

At which point, the whilom preposition starts acting more adverbially, and adverbs can be veried without half so much trouble. But some of the directional or adverbial ones really do seem to be modifiable by degree:

  • Is the end near? Yes, I believe we’re very near the end now.
  • Will the parade pass near here? Yes, it will pass very near us. It shall pass very near, indeed.

Being very like something

However, back to your main point about very like something.

I’m not sure that I’m willing to call like a preposition (the OED calls it an adjective for these sorts of uses), but here are assorted OED citations of “very like”:

  • 1719 De Foe Crusoe i. xᴠɪ, ― It was very like the Tree we call Fustic.
  • 1710 Swift Jrnl. to Stella 25 Oct., ― Addison’s sister is a sort of a wit, very like him.
  • 1727 A. Hamilton New Acc. E. Ind. II. xxxɪx. 81 ― The Durean is another excellent Fruit, but offensive to some Peoples Noses, for it smells very like human Excrements, but when once tasted the Smell vanishes.
  • 1868 Yates Rock Ahead II. 245 ― Wooded uplands suggested good cover-shooting; broad expanse of heath looked very like rabbits.
  • 1857 R. Tomes Amer. in Japan vi. 135 ― The jamana··is very like the red-wood of Brazil and Mexico.
  • 1865 Pall Mall G. 25 Oct. 10 ― Gladiateur’s colours are blue and red, and Nu’s are cerise (which is very like red) and blue.
  • 1836 Sir G. Head Home Tour 144 ― The town of Dewsbury··celebrated for··grinding old garments into new; literally tearing in pieces fusty old rags··by a machine called a ‘devil’, till a substance very like the original is reproduced.
  • 1926 F. Z. Snoop Reproduction & Sexual Evolution 83 ― Havelock Ellis quotes other cases, even butterflies (if insects may be here included) who possess excrescences on their penes, which of necessity must cause pain, or something very like pain, during coition.

And regarding your original Shakespearian citation, the OED notes that this has become (or was at one time) a set phrase, to be very like a whale:

Allusive, proverbial, transf., and fig. uses of sense 1. a. Prov. phr. (to throw out) a tub to the whale: see tub sb.9 b. very like a whale (after Shaks. Ham. ɪɪɪ. ii. 398): see quot. 1859.

  • 1591 1st Pt. Troub. Raigne K. John (1611) C 3 b, ― The mariner, Spying the hugie Whale, whose monstrous bulke Doth beare the waues like mountaines fore the wind, That throwes out emptie vessels, so to stay His fury.

  • 1859 Slang Dict. 115 ― Very like a whale, said of anything that is very improbable.

So in summary, I think that whatever you call like, there is no problem with things being very like other things.

share|improve this answer
    
Also from Shakespeare (The Tempest): SEBASTIAN Ha, ha! What things are these, my lord Antonio? Will money buy 'em? ANTONIO Very like. One of them Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable. –  Robusto Sep 27 '12 at 11:55
1  
+1 Excellent answer. Great examples and explanations, and a pithy, precise, and palatable summary. –  user21497 Sep 27 '12 at 15:11
add comment

Very is now normally used only to modify adjectives and adverbs, not verbs: it is not a normal adverb. Normal adverbs can modify verbs.

You were exactly at the right place.

You were *very at the right place.

Here exactly modifies the verb were, you could say, or the predication were at the right place. Very cannot do this.


The word like was originally an adjective, and as such it could be modified by very, I believe, as in your very like a whale. It worked just like worth, with a postpositional object:

The house is worth a ton.

The house is like a ton.

This same construction survived up to the present time, obviously, but it is now not always felt to be a true adjective any more. It is rather felt to be a preposition in this construction (and a conjunction in that's just like I did it, which is still not accepted by everyone in formal writing). As a preposition, it usually does not admit of modification by very, just as at the right place above does not.


Very near a whale

This sounds a bit unusual to me, which is probably because near went through a similar development from adjective to preposition.

The Near East.

God is near.

In these examples, near is used as an adjective.

God is near the second cloud on your right.

Here as a preposition, or, if you want to look at it etymologically, as an adjective with a postpositional modifier (the second cloud on your right).


Prepositions are formed continually in all languages I know (which are admittedly all Indo-European), this is a natural process. It is said that prepositions were relatively new in Proto-Indo-European. They may even have formed only in later stages, as a convergent development in the later proto-languages. Our older prepositions do seem to originate in adverbs, not adjectives:

That ball is out.

That ball fell out.

? That out ball is interesting.

I would read the last sentence as a ball that was "out" in tennis or something, a fairly modern instance of ellipsis.

share|improve this answer
    
Seems to me that near in God is near** is a locative adverb. No difference between **near and here in God is here**. But **near may be a subjective complement, but it doesn't modify God; it tells the reader/listener where God is, not that _God is good/great/vindictive/invisible/green/dead or any other adjective. –  user21497 Sep 27 '12 at 5:58
    
@BillFranke: I agree that you could look at it as adverbial; then again, it cannot be an adverb in other contexts, where it modifies a non-copular verb, so I would rather not call it an adverb here. I don't feel your last argument is very strong, though: a location can be a property to assign like any other. God is approximate, God is remote, God is distant. I would rather ascribe its adverbiality to the copula, or to its being a predicative adjective, as in God was late. –  Cerberus Sep 27 '12 at 6:16
    
Approximate, remote, distant are ADJ when describing God's personality or state-of-being traits and remote & distant are locative ADV when describing position relative to me (e.g.). That, at least is my analysis. I don't claim to be infallible. I may be wrong. Unlike some usage mavens, I'm not an absolutist about language. Some things just don't fit nicely with the way we analyze the language. Usage is sometimes contradictory. BTW, I see You were exactly at the right place as ungrammatical: should be You were at exactly the right place in my idiolect. What works is best. –  user21497 Sep 27 '12 at 8:57
    
I agree that it is hard to use very to modify a verb, but getting it to do so for a preposition isn’t that hard. I guess you aren’t very into that kind of thing, though. :) –  tchrist Sep 27 '12 at 10:23
    
@BillFranke: The distant clouds carried a promise of rain. Here you can see distant used as a plain locative adjective. So there is nothing unusual about locative adjectives. –  Cerberus Sep 27 '12 at 15:33
show 2 more comments

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.