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When I submitted my Sociology M.Phil study proposal, the adviser wrote in the comments section:

Very good in theory, not at all very good in practice.

That sounds odd. What creates dissonance is the juxtaposition of "not at all" and "very good" which are opposite in meaning to each other. I suppose "not very good", "not so good" or "not at all good" would have been more typical constructions.

Research done: I Googled the exact phrase and found a few examples, usually in reviews. It's definitely not commonly used.

Recent example:

[...] I am not at all very good at this game as many here like to point out [...]

from http://forum-console.worldoftanks.com/index.php?/topic/204294-high-win-rate-gaming-the-system/page__st__20

Another recent example for "not at all very":

[...] the way they treat their workers is completely unfair and not at all very professional [...]

Source: https://www.indeed.com/cmp/Gms-Mine-Repair-&-Maintenance/reviews

Is "not at all very good" correct usage? Also, how should it be logically interpreted on an arbitrary 6-point scale of quality from 'very good' through 'good', 'not very good', 'not at all very good', and 'not good' (I am not sure those 4 points are sequential) to 'not at all good' which basically means 'bad'? Please give your reasons why or why not and try to support them with adequate references to avoid any objection of being "primarily opinion based."

Note: I am not sure I used the appropriate tag. Please advise or edit.

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    It's fine as an negative comment about labeling something "very good", though one might expect to see quotes around 'very good': ... not at all 'very good' in practice. – Lawrence Jan 17 '18 at 4:26
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    Yes, that's what I though @Lawrence. What is the best tag for this question? – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 4:33
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    @Jesse Ivy I'd use "not at all" if I were "not at all pleased about X" or "not at all amused by X" or "not at all willing to do X", but that is a very strong negative. I thought that the OP's adviser was avoiding something so negative, either not to discourage the OP or, more likely, because such a strong negative was not warranted. The practice part of the proposal was not up to the standards of the theory part, which was very good. The practice part was not awful, it was just fell very short of being very good. The wording of the advisor was awkward; I hope he was clearer in person – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jan 17 '18 at 9:29
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    "The practice part was not awful, it was just fell very short of being very good." _ You got it right. In person the adviser explained: "very good in theory, not at all very good in practice. This is not at all what I expect. I expect your proposal to be very good both in theory and in practice" @ab2. So I got the impression that anything less than "very good" is not at all good enough! (In short he meant that you can't implement this study properly in the field.) – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 9:55
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    (contd.) May I clarify that in principle my adviser dislikes to use explicit negatives like "bad" or "poor" as being discouraging -- just as you pointed out -- so he got into the habit of using a variety of variations of "not good" to convey his disapproval @ab2! – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 10:06
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It isn't that it's wrong but that it isn't used literally. It's euphemism by understatement. Or understatement by euphemism.

"Not very good" literally means "of some level of quality that one couldn't call 'very good'", which could include "good", "fairly good", "fair", "mediocre", "bad", "very bad", "abominable", etc. But we understand it to mean "bad" or worse.

It's like saying, "Doreen isn't exactly a brain trust." One wouldn't say that if one considered Doreen to be of reasonable intelligence, or even average intelligence. One would normally say that to imply the more direct "Doreen is really dumb".

  • Welcome to EL&U. Can you please edit your answer to address the OP's question about the phrase "not at all very good". – Rupert Morrish Mar 8 '18 at 21:00
  • The OP asked, "Is "not at all very good" correct usage?" Out of the OP's inquiry, that's the part that was boldfaced, implying to me that that was the fundamental question being asked. I answered precisely that in my first paragraph. "It isn't that it's wrong but that it isn't used literally" responds directly to "Is ... correct usage?" I elaborated in the remainder to clarify my points about literalness and euphemism, and addressed the portion of the OP's inquiry that dealt with where on a scale the semantics of the phrase point. – Green Grasso Holm Mar 8 '18 at 21:08
  • Thanks for a fresh interpretation @Green Grasso Holm: if I understand you right, "not at all very good" is an euphemism for "pretty bad"! Kind teacher doesn't believe in making outright negative statements so you may well be right here, I think. – English Student Mar 8 '18 at 22:25
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"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be"

-Mark Twain

http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/07/12-timeless-writing-tips-from-mark-twain/

  • Thanks for the interesting quote @Jesse Ivy. In short 'very' is overused in English according to Mark Twain? – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 5:17
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    Well to be fair I think Mark Twain is advising against the use of filler words in prose even if written on a cocktail napkin at a bar fight. Yes. – Jesse Ivy Jan 17 '18 at 6:24
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    Solid points @Jesse Ivy. My adviser should read this. I think some senior members here might suggest you incorporate these 2 explanatory comments into your answer. – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 10:03
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    Of course it might be kind to avoid critiquing your advisor's review. We all make mistakes, and it was likely in a caffeine fueled dellerium that they were able to complete their work. Congratulations on approaching completion of your degree! – Jesse Ivy Jan 17 '18 at 15:01
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    Thanks @Jesse Ivy. I actually got awarded the degree recently, after fulfilling the adviser's expectations. He is actually a really kind teacher. I have, however remained curious about that "not at all very" usage! – English Student Jan 17 '18 at 15:24

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