Choosing between “very”, “much” & “very much” depends more on the kind of word with them than on what they mean
THE CLOSENESS OF “VERY”, “MUCH” AND “VERY MUCH”
It is easy to mix up very, much and very much. Which are possible below?
(a) The audience was … happy to participate.
(b) Grammar needs to be explained … clearly.
(c) The engine performance was … improved.
(d) Grammar can sometimes bring … difficulty.
(e) Fuel was expensive but the engine did not need … .
(f) Grammar can be enjoyed … .
In (a) and (b) you can only say very. In (c), (d) and (e) it would be wrong to use very instead of much or very much. In (f) you can only say very much. In this post I want to try and explain what makes the different forms right or wrong.
WAYS OF EXPLAINING WORD DIFFERENCES
Differences are not always of the same kind (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words). Some are of meaning (e.g. between important and essential, the latter being stronger), some are of possible partner words (e.g. between large and great, the former being right before scale, the latter before interest), and some are of grammar (e.g. but when a conjunction is needed versus however when the need is for a connector – see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors).
The difference between very, much and very much seems to involve partly meaning (very much is stronger than much), but mostly grammar. The grammar that makes the difference is generally the grammatical class (“part of speech”) of the accompanying word.
USE OF “VERY”, “MUCH” & “VERY MUCH” BEFORE ADJECTIVES & ADVERBS
As a rule, it is not possible to use much or very much before adjectives and adverbs. This is the reason why only very[i] is correct in (a) and (b) above: happy is an adjective and clearly is an adverb. Note that very much in particular has to be avoided: saying *very much happy is a grammar error of a very common sort (a similar rule operates with the word too: before an adjective or adverb there is no possibility of adding much). Note also that even very is not possible with “strong” (“non-gradable”) adjectives like brilliant, dead, delicious, ecstatic, essential, impossible and perfect (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words).
Things change, however, if the adjective or adverb is in the comparative or superlative form. It is then not possible to use very by itself, but you can easily say much or very much instead: we say (very) much better, (very) much more difficult, (very) much the best and (very) much the most difficult.
Obviously, decisions based on word classes like “adjectives” and “adverbs” make it important to be able to recognise those word classes. Other parts of this blog that give advice on recognising adjectives and adverbs are 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1, 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun and 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs. A problem arises, however, with words ending in -ing or -ed, which may be essentially adjectives or essentially verbs in the “participle” form (see 52. Participles Placed Just After Their Noun). Compare the following:
(c) The engine performance was much improved.
(g) The audience was very interested in participating.
The probable reason why improved usually has much instead of very is that it is more a verb than an adjective. It has been given adjective-like properties by being put into the -ed form, but it is still a verb rather than an adjective.
Why, then, is interested not also a verb? A possible answer is that it has been used like an adjective for so long that English speakers have started to think of it more as an adjective – sounding right with very – than as a verb. This is bad news for learners of English, because it means that every word ending in -ed needs to be individually remembered as either a verb or an adjective. The good news, however, is that a feeling for the way to use particular words is likely to develop naturally over time just through being exposed to a lot of English.
Other -ed words that feel more natural with very include bored, educated, established, flattered, marked, pleased, pointed and stressed. Those that prefer much include appreciated, discussed, improved, indebted, liked, loved, praised, recovered and watched. Many verbs seem able to take either much or very, perhaps because they are halfway towards becoming adjectives. Examples are acquainted, admired, amused, confused, distracted, impressed, involved, occupied and surprised.
There is a similar situation with -ing words. In the following sentence, is very correct or much?
(h) The team are lucky to keep their … suffering supporters.
The more likely possibility here is much. Change suffering to uncomplaining, though, and very is needed instead. Other -ing words allowing only much include improving and talking. Those preferring very, which seem more numerous, include amusing, boring, confusing, demanding, distracting, engaging, entertaining, hard-working, inspiring, promising, satisfying, striking and taxing. Ones that might allow either much or very are differing and discriminating.
USE OF “VERY”, “MUCH” & “VERY MUCH” BEFORE OTHER KINDS OF WORD
1. Before Nouns
Sentence (d) above has a noun (difficulty) after (very) much rather than an adjective or adverb. This changes the word class of (very) much too: from adverb to “determiner” (an adjective-like word similar to the – see 110. Nouns without “a” or “the”). Very cannot change like this: it is only an adverb, which means it cannot be used by itself in front of nouns.
This use of (very) much is possible only with uncountable nouns (though it has a plural [very] many, that goes with plural countable ones). Quite often it needs the sentence as a whole to be negative or a question, like this:
(i) Children should not be given (very) much salt.
Without not here, one would have to say something like plenty of instead of much. Uses of much that need not are a major topic by themselves, and are not considered here.
Some -ing words after much are noun-like rather than adjective-like. Consider this:
(j) Much walking was necessary.
Walking here is not adjective-like in the way that suffering in (h) is, because it has no accompanying noun – like supporters – to describe (for the normal need of adjectives to have an accompanying noun, see 6. Adjectives with No Noun 1). Instead, walking is noun-like, the subject of the verb was. Speaking technically, it is a “gerund” rather than a “participle” (see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”). Gerunds can have (very) much but not very.
2. Before “Like” & “Unlike”
One of the uses of like and unlike is prepositional for making comparisons (see 56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike”). Like used in this way can directly follow both much and very (and also just), but unlike allows only very:
(k) Public speakers have to perform much/very/just like actors. (BUT … very unlike …).
3. With no Following Word
In sentences (e) and (f) above, much is used on its own without a following word. It can be accompanied by very but not replaced by it. In (e) it is a pronoun: it occupies a typical noun position in its sentence – here the object of need – and it stands for the same thing as an earlier noun – fuel (see 28. Pronoun Errors). Very often with this use the sentence must be negative or a question.
In sentence (f) much is an adverb meaning greatly (it cannot be an object because the verb can be enjoyed allows no object since it is passive). It is a different kind of adverb, however, from the kind used before adjectives and other adverbs: saying something about the verb instead (for more on adverb kinds, see 120. Six Things to Know About Adverbs). Two sentence positions are possible: next to the verb enjoyed and at the end. The first allows a choice between much and very much; the second does only if the sentence is negative or a question; otherwise it needs very much.
[i]Many other words can be used instead of very, though. Increasingly, one hears so, which traditionally suggested that the strength of the adjective was already familiar to the hearer. Other possibilities are more colourful or precise. Some, like extremely, go with practically any adjective, while others go with special ones, e.g. seriously (with ill).