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In a recent test, we were asked to identify the grammatically incorrect sentence from this:

  1. They gave us the money back less the service charges of three hundred dollars.
  2. This country's expenditure is not less than that of Bangladesh.
  3. The committee initially asked for a funding of 2 million dollars, but later settled for a lesser sum.
  4. This country's expenditure on educational reforms is very less.

The incorrect sentence apparently is the 4th one. But I don't see why.. All 4 sentences sound correct. The only thing one might have doubts about is the use of "country's" in place of "of this country". Is the correct form of the 4th sentence - The expenditure of this country on educational reforms is very less. ?

marked as duplicate by mplungjan, FumbleFingers, tchrist, MrHen, Hellion Jan 16 '14 at 19:11

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  • 1
    x very less -- is my guess, not country's. – Kris Jan 16 '14 at 15:00
  • 5
    The word less is a comparative; you can't use very in front of it. You can say "Bruce is taller than Jim" or "Bruce is very tall". You can't say "Bruce is very taller". – Peter Shor Jan 16 '14 at 15:00
  • 2
    See this question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/95958/… – Andrew Leach Jan 16 '14 at 15:01
  • @PeterShor But you can say much taller or very much taller. – bib Jan 16 '14 at 15:04
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    @sanjeev: comparatives and superlatives are types of adjectives, but types you can't use very with. You can apply very to any gradable adjective. You can't apply it to ungradable adjectives. Which adjectives are gradable? I don't know where you can get a good list; the lists I can find are written by prescriptive grammarians, who are often wrong about how people talk. Two truly ungradable adjective are main and principal. You can't say something is very main. But people say very complete all the time, despite the fact that it's on most of the lists of ungradable adjectives. – Peter Shor Jan 16 '14 at 15:41
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The mistake is very less. The word less is a comparative adjective; you can't use very in front of comparatives. Most comparatives end with -er, and I'll use taller as an example. You can say:

Bruce is taller than Jim.
Bruce is very tall.
Bruce is much taller than Jim.
Bruce is very much taller than Jim.

But not:

*Bruce is very taller.
*Bruce is very taller than Jim.

You can use very in front of most adjectives. Which adjectives can't you use very in front of? Comparatives and superlatives are one class of adjectives which don't take very. There is also a class of adjectives called ungradable which don't take very. Which adjectives are ungradable? This is a problem; I don't know where you can get a good list. The lists I can find are written by prescriptive grammarians, who are often wrong about how people really use language.

One truly ungradable adjective is main . You can't say something is very main. But people say very complete all the time, despite the fact that it's on many of the lists of ungradable adjectives.

  • 1
    The word less is better analysed as a comparative determiner (the Collins analysis). In we have a little dog, 'little' is an adjective, ascribing an attribute to the referent of the noun (good old Fido, say). In we have a little rice / we have little rice / we have less rice, we are being given no information about the nature of the rice, but rather about the quantity. This ' serving to express the reference of the noun or noun phrase in the context ' classes little / a little / less as determiners. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '14 at 16:37
  • Here is a great treatment of ungradeable adjectives, explaining why it wouldn't make sense to grade extreme (eg terrified), absolute (eg dead) and classifying (eg nuclear) adjectives. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '14 at 16:55
  • @Edwin: that site gives "black" as non-gradeable, which is ridiculous. This is what I mean about these lists being written by prescriptive grammarians. – Peter Shor Jan 16 '14 at 17:17
  • The primary sense 'of the very darkest color owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light; the opposite of white' is semantically ungradeable. The fact that we broaden, using 'blacker' to mean 'more nearly black' just as we use 'fuller' to mean 'more nearly full' is a complication. 'Black' is obviously an 'extreme' adjective, as is 'full'. I'd treat these (relatively few, I think) examples as exceptions to the rule. 'Deader' is sometimes used whimsically. 'Merest' really means 'mere' in bold print. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 16 '14 at 23:21
  • @Edwin: As the words are used, if black is ungradable, than all colors should be ungradable. See Ngram. – Peter Shor Jan 16 '14 at 23:30

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