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?

  • 2
    @tchrist: Then there was Jonah, who was very much into a whale. :^)
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 10:49
  • If you check out the etymology of "very", it originally meant "truly" (cf. "vero" in Romance languages), so "Very like a whale" means something like "Truly like a whale" or "Really like a whale". But of course, as time flows, and people forget the original meaning, and just use what they heard other people saying, they may start considering only these expressions that they heard as "correct" and those that they're unfamiliar with as "incorrect", making rules out of thin air to explain their thinking if someone asks them for their reasons. Interesting question though.
    – SasQ
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 5:19

5 Answers 5


“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  • Or very out of date.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.

  • 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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 11:55
  • 3
    +1 Excellent answer. Great examples and explanations, and a pithy, precise, and palatable summary.
    – user21497
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 15:11

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.

  • 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?”. Commented Sep 27, 2012 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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 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. Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 15:26
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 21:38
  • @Cerberus: + 1 million Commented Nov 6, 2013 at 11:33

(1) Modifying prepositional phrases with very needs degree meaning and is unusual

The adverb very modifies expressions that can take on different degrees, i.e. whose semantics allow for a scale on which a concept can be compared. We can test for the presence of degrees with a paraphrase such as "to a certain degree." When a prepositional phrase allows for a degree interpretation, modification with very is marginally acceptable.

(1) they are actually very, very in love. (2013, spoken English, NBC: Today Show)
(because paraphrase works: They are in love to a certain degree.)

(2) * They are actually very, very in London.
(because paraphrase doesn't work: ??He is in London to a certain degree.)

(3) I'm very in favor of more torpedoes. (2004, Bk: Wildfire, written English)
(because paraphrase works: I'm in favor of it to a certain degree.)

(4) * I'm very in front of a torch.
(because paraphrase doesn't work: ??I'm in front of it to a certain degree.)

(5) So, yes, I'm very for it (2002, CNN_Chung, spoken English)
(because paraphrase works: They support it to a certain degree.)

(6) * I'm here very for my colleague
(because paraphrase doesn't work: ??I'm replacing my colleague to a certain degree.)

However, prepositional phrases are generally taken to express states. Speakers usually use them to convey an idea that can be true or false with no degrees in between. One is either in love or not, in London or somewhere else, for something or against something, etc. Therefore, very does not normally modify prepositional phrases.

To support this, I browsed the Corpus of Contemporary American English for five common prepositions, in, on, of, for and about and counted how often they are preceded by very in comparison to very much. The results are shown below:

enter image description here (Figure 1: use of very (vs. very much) + preposition in contemporary English)

The graph shows that prepositional phrases occur with very only very rarely, between 0.2% and 6.4%.

  • So, to answer the question: as a rule of thumb, very does not modify prepositional phrases, but it may sometimes do so if the prepositional phrase conveys a degree interpretation, rather than a true-or-false state.

(2) The preposition like is special – it derives from an adjective

Originally, the word like functioned as an adjective in English. There are many ways to show this. Here are two adjectival characteristics that like used to possess.

(a) The word used to be inflected like any other adjective. For example, the following Old English example has the word gelicestan, literally like-est – the superlative of the adjective like ‘most like, most similar to.’

(7) þa funde he oðerne [...] him þone gelicestan,
then found he another one him the like-est
‘He found then another one who was most similar to him
(Old English Bede, 4:23, c. 880 A.D.)

(b) The adjective could also be nominalized. That means that you could turn the adjective into a noun just like you can turn poor or blind into a noun today (The poor are suffering, The blind leading the blind). The meaning would be something like ‘those who are like you, fellows, comrades’ (cf. ilk).

(8) þine gelican
your likes
‘your companions’
(Aelfric’s Life of Saint Eugenia, c. 1000 A.D.)

Over time, the word like came to be distributed like prepositions. Again, there are many ways to demonstrate this, but I will only mention two arguments.

(a) As an adjective, like occurred almost exclusively with copula verbs, like be. But nowadays phrases with like can easily modify other verbs. Hence, expressions like he swam like a fish, he worked like a maniac, she dressed like a princess etc. used to be impossible but have now become quite common. One of the earliest examples of such modification I found, shown below, is from 1529. The OED (sense B.1.a(a)) lists the earliest date as c1390(a1376).

(9) he dyd live like a wyddower / whiche a fore tyme had bene maryed
(Desiderius’ An Exhortation to the Diligent Studye of Scripture, 1529)

(b) The word like can now be used to introduce a list of typical examples, meaning ‘such as’. The OED (sense D.2(a)) records this usage from 1593 on.

(10) i am acquainted with a sort of men like him
(Voiture’s Letters of Affaires Love and Courtship, 1657)

So, to summarize, the word like is slowly losing adjectival properties, such as adjectival inflection or nominalization, and slowly gaining prepositional uses, like verbal modification or listing of typical examples. Modification of like with very is just another of its adjectival features.

It follows that:

(i) Since like derives from, and retains some properties of, an adjective, modification with very is far more common for like than for any other preposition.
(ii) Since like is in a century-long process of losing its adjectival features, modification with very is slowly dropping out of use.

To demonstrate this, I collected some data from the Corpus of Historical American English. I compared the frequency of very like to very much like over time, as illustrated in the pairs of examples below.

(11)a. Thou'rt very like her, that's certain (1822, LoganAFamilyHistory)
(11)b. that is very much like him. (1835, ClintonBradshaw)

(12)a. being, in the shape of his body and limbs, very like a frog (1823, ErrataTheWorks)
(12)b. begin to feel myself very much like a fish out of water (1835, AnOldSailorsYarns)

(13)a. you are very like your father (2006, Distraction)
(13)b. You look very much like my son at your age (2000, RulesSurrender)

(14)a. He had her pale hair, a face very like hers. (2001, FantasySciFi)
(14)b. Mrs. Townsend or someone very much like her. (2004, Hallelujah!Welcome)

I also collected the same historical data for the preposition in. The graph below shows the percentage use of very (vs. very much) for every decade from 1810-2000.

enter image description here
(Figure 2: Historical development of very like and very in)

As the graph shows, (i) modification with very occurs overwhelmingly more frequently for like than for other prepositions like in, by a factor of more than 20, and (ii) modification of like with very becomes less common over time, from 60-70% in the early 1800s to about 10-20% today.

  • Hence, there is a secondary answer to the question. The preposition like in particular is much more likely to permit modification with very, especially as you go further back in time, as in Shakespeare’s very like a whale, because like derives historically from an adjective.
  • Sim­i­lar to Shake­speare’s use of very like, he also li­cenced very worth when in Twelve Night he had Vi­ola say: “It may be worth thy pains, for I can sing / And speak to him in many sorts of mu­sic / That will al­low me very worth his ser­vice. / What else may hap, to time I will com­mit.” It’s still not very grad­able in present-day English, for though I can marginally imag­ine some­thing be­ing “more/most worth my while”, its reg­u­lar in­flec­tions by de­gree (⁕worther, ⁕worthest) have been un­gram­mat­i­cal since the 18ᵗʰ cen­tury.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 13:05

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.

  • 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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 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. Commented Sep 27, 2012 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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 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
    Commented Sep 27, 2012 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. Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 15:33

First of, "like" in "very like a whale" is a preposition as attested by M-W Collegiate 11:

Date: 13th century 1.a. : having the characteristics of : similar to [his house is like a barn] [it's like when we were kids]

True! The same dictionary also lists "very" as an adjective as user21497 pointed out:

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)]

I would argue that "like" being an adjective and meaning "(almost) identical" as in "like unto his brethren" does NOT make it less prepositional in "like a whale". I'm not saying that "adjective phrase" is the wrong take on this one, but that "unto" is the preposition in this case, which is comparable to "like (a whale)" or "(afraid) of".


According to OED2, as an adverb, "very" is used for emphasis: 1. in a high degree 2. with superlative or own used to emphasize that the following description applies without qualification

The second definition is not applicable to "very like a whale"). The first one is a working definition in the case of "very like a whale", suggesting a strong similarity between the cloud and a whale.

*"Very by a whale", *"Very in a whale", *"Very inside a whale", and *"Very toward a whale" do not sound right because "very" in the sense of "in a high degree" is not semantically viable in the aforementioned cases because:

you come either on a boat or by a whale; you are either in/inside or out of/outside a whale's body; you are either approaching (towards) or steering clear of the whale.

Yes, one might argue: doesn't "very" meaning in a large degree apply to the case where "I travelled 4/5 the journey by a whale"? No, because in that case, "majorly by a whale" or "mostly by a whale" would be appropriate. However, here and now, "majorly" or "mostly" modifies the verb--I mostly travelled by a whale because "mostly/majorly by a whale" in itself just won't work as I explained.

In short, where there is no "grey area", nor superlative (very best something), nor own (his very own car), you cannot use "very" as an adverb, and that's personally convincingly why we can't and don't say "He very ran."

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