Very surprised by a proscription

From Jan Freeman’s compendium of usage advice that hasn’t aged well:

Very pleased. “Don’t say ‘I am very pleased to see you.’ Say ‘I am very much pleased to see you, or I am pleased to see you.’ Note. – Very cannot directly modify a verb, and, hence, not its past participle. ‘I am very delighted,’ ‘I am very disappointed,’ etc., are incorrect expressions.” (Josephine Turck Baker, “Correct English, How to Use It,” 1907)

This was a new one for me. But it’s an interesting example of a proscription with a “logical” basis, one that arises by reasoning from “first principles”.

There are any number of such proscriptions: “double negatives” like I didn’t see no dog, ruled out because “two negatives make a positive”; singular they, as in Everyone has their own idea on the subject, ruled out because everyone is singular and therefore cannot be an antecedent for a plural pronoun; possessives ruled out as antecedents for pronouns, as in Toni Morrison’s books made her famous, ruled out because possessives are adjectives and therefore cannot be antecedents for pronouns (which are substitutes for nouns); and so on.

In each such case, the “logic” that’s appealed to is specious, because it rests on fallacious assumptions, usually unexpressed (different assumptions in different cases).

For the very pleased case, the unexpressed assumption is something like

Once a verb, always a verb.

Now it’s true that Engish verbs aren’t modifiable by simple degree modifiers like very

*I very annoyed them. / *I annoyed them very.

but instead take extent modifiers like very much —

I very much annoyed them. / [better] I annoyed them very much.

But the past participle (PSP) and present participle (PRP) forms of verbs can also serve as adjectives. In fact, such uses are venerable in English.

That is, annoyed and annoying have a life as different lexical items from the verb annoy — as adjectives in

an annoyed customer
an annoying phone call

The full range of facts here is annoyingly complex, but there’s no denying that these participles have uses as adjectives. There are, in fact, nice contrasts between the participles used as verbs (in passives, for PSP; in progressives, for PRP) and their use as adjectives:

I was annoyed by a swarm of stinging insects. [most likely a passive verb]
I was annoyed at their condescension. [most likely an adjective]
A swarm of stinging insects was annoying me. [progressive verb]
Their condescenson was annoying to me. [adjective]

The adjectives can be comparative or superlative:

a more / most annoyed customer
a more / most annoying phone call

So it’s no surprise that the adjectives can occur with degree modifiers like very:

a very annoyed customer
a very annoying phone call

I’m deliberately concealing many of the complexities (a full treatment would easily fill several books, so I’ve disabled comments, for fear they would spin off endlessly into these side issues), but I think the main point is clear: PSP and PRP have uses as adjectives as well as verbs (and have had them for a long time), so there should be no problem with modification by very or other degree modifiers.

[It has occurred to me that Baker’s complaint is, at root, about very; very is deprecated again and again by usage advisers, for at least a century (for a long time, I’ve had postings in preparation about the War Against Very). Perhaps a complaint about very has been (partially) deflected onto the word it modifies, with an after-the-fact rationale concocted for disapproving of the combination.]


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