I recently found something mildly intriguing.

Very should mean more than the following adjective.

This room is dark

Means that it is casually dark if you will. While

This room is very dark

Would mean that the room is darker than in the previous statement.


If we take for instance

This room is clean

It means that the room is 100% (absolutely) clean, right?

Well if we add very it gives us

This room is very clean

which would mean that it is not 100% clean but almost 100% clean because it is not absolutely clean.

So am I getting this wrong or can very actually mean less intense?

  • 1
    A room can be clean ("free from dirt, marks, or stains"). A room can be very clean (more clean). A room can be very, very ("eat off the floor") clean (above and beyond 'very clean'). So, no. "Clean" does not mean 100% clean. And very means very, pretty much all the time (unless said sarcastically). Dec 27, 2014 at 5:57
  • @medica What about instead of 'clean' we use 'black'. When you say something is 'black' it means it has the hex value of #000000 and very black would be something like #1F1F1F. Sorry for hexes but I don't know the millions of colors by names. Dec 27, 2014 at 6:02
  • Same difference. I can easily imagine two blacks side to side, one being more black than the other. A picture of my black and white Border Collie clearly shows the shiny black areas of her coat. If I increase the contrast of said picture, her black coat becomes very black in comparison. Dec 27, 2014 at 6:13
  • 2
    'If we take for instance This room is clean It means that the room is 100% (absolutely) clean, right?' >> Not as usually used. The expression normally implies 'I can't immediately see any deviation from cleanliness', not 'Grissom wouldn't find anything'. We often use absolute language in an imprecise way, omitting explanatory words ('This glass is very full' [as a shortened form of 'This glass is very nearly full']; 'He was very dead' [ie it was very obvious that he was dead]. Dec 27, 2014 at 9:23

2 Answers 2


I see what you're getting at, and it is true that modifiers such as very, highly, and extremely can, in fact, serve as a kind of hedge and thus undermine their own intensification.

This is a matter of style and effect, and I believe Steven Pinker explained it well in his book The Sense of Style:

If I'm wondering who pilfered the petty cash, it's more reassuring to hear Not Jones; he's an honest man than Not Jones; he's a very honest man. The reason is that unmodified adjectives and nouns tend to be interpreted categorically: honest means "completely honest," or at least "completely honest in the way that matters here" (just as Jack drank the bottle of beer implies that he chugged down all of it, not just a sip or two). As soon as you add an intensifier, you're turning an all-or-none dichotomy into a graduated scale. True, you're trying to place your subject high on the scale - say, an 8.7 out of 10 - but it would have been better if the reader were not considering his relative degree of honesty in the first place.

So it's not so much that very can actually mean less intense, but it can shift a categorical (0% or 100%, in the language of your question) interpretation to a relative one, thus making (potentially) very honest seem less honest than honest.


Very could be used as emphasis. If the room is very clean, it is noticeably clean, or cleaner than normal.

  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question. Dec 27, 2014 at 10:45
  • I agree. Pragmatic emphasis (the observer notices [for once?] how well it's been cleaned // the observer thinks that yesterday the room was fine but today it's gleaming [and/or, the speaker is emphasising the fact to the listener]) rather than true emphasis of the word 'clean' itself. This is the only thing that makes sense with say 'very dead'; 'dead' can't accept an intensifier operating as such. Dec 27, 2014 at 12:20

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