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From my understanding of English, "very" means "more than the usual" or "to a higher extent".

I've seen on several places the expression "very illegal", such as here as an example: https://youtu.be/ytDamqTjPwg?t=8m23s

The bigger point here is, [the Pump & Dump scheme] is very illegal!

However, I don't understand the meaning here. If I apply my previous knowledge, it would mean it's "more illegal than usual", and from the context of the example quote above we're talking about illegal stock exchange practices.

But "more illegal than usual"? It just doesn't make sense to me, something is either illegal or it's legal. I can understand some crimes might be considered more damaging than other crimes. It leads me to think "very illegal" is a particular expression, plus it doesn't fit in the example context above.

I am not familiar with the literal translation of "very illegal" that would be "très illégal" in French. The closest meaningful expression I could find appended around the word "illégal" is "vraiment illégal", which would mean "it's illegal but you might have thought it isn't". In English without being certain about the expression, I would translate that as "really illegal", or "truly illegal", or "actually illegal" (even though I dislike the word "actually").

I wasn't able to find a definition on Google.

What is the difference between "illegal" and "very illegal" in general?



EDIT (two days since start): Appreciation of answers

I've been monitoring the answers and considering each one, and it seems clear that very is an emphasis on the illegality. Even though I do not know if all of the following is relevant as some answers have low votes, from all answers so far various facets appear as I interpreted:

  • very might emphasize the likelihood of being prosecuted for the crime (-> several mentions (A, B, C, maybe D)

  • very might emphasize how flagrant or unambiguous a crime is (-> several mentions (A, B, C)

  • very might emphasize the morality of the crime (-> most upvoted answer)

  • very might emphasize the severity of punishment of the crime (-> one answer with high votes)

  • very illegal might highlight that a illegal activity that doesn't immediately stand out as illegal for a target audience is not only illegal, but is also emphasized in some way (-> some mentions A, B)

The following do not answer the question but are interesting nonetheless:

  • Prefixing very might not be necessarily needed for crimes in which morality, severity of punishment or likelihood of being pursued are obvious to the targeted audience; adding it should be meaningful for the interpretation by the target audience as opposed to if it wasn't prefixed.

  • very illegal is informal (A, B), there are much better words for some situations (misdemeanor, felony, capital offense...)

  • One answer mentions highly illegal. As it stands out I cannot summarize it here.

There does not seem to be a strong pattern emerging from the answers for which facet everyone agrees about. I have the disturbing feeling that maybe my objective question is unexpectedly leading to subjective but valid answers. Even though the currently most upvoted answer may be the best answer, it might only reflect some valid facets of a more complete answer.

However it clearly highlights the emphasis aspect that seems to be common to all facets so I'm accepting that answer.

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I'll let someone else give a detailed response, but this is an entirely fair question - why is it that sometimes in English, we use modifiers with words that are supposed to be absolute? In theory, yes, law is rigid. But in practice, there are different levels of "severity" for different actions. For example, jay-walking (crossing an empty street on a red light) and murdering someone are both illegal, both they are different levels of severity. – Alex K Mar 11 at 20:15
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A related phrase would be "very pregnant" - either you're pregnant or you're not, but a woman who is "very pregnant" is obviously pregnant with a huge round belly and the baby is probably due to come soon. No-one is likely to be confused about whether she is pregnant or maybe just gained a little weight. – ColleenV Mar 11 at 20:24
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It's worth noting that "very illegal" is not appropriate in formal English. – Hugh Mar 11 at 22:16
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I think that this is just hyperbole – Andrew Mar 12 at 0:10
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Speeding is illegal. But many people do it and only a few people are punished for it. Killing is "very illegal". The police will look hard to find you if you kill someone. So the usage has more to do with how likely you are to be pursued. – user9999999 Mar 13 at 6:46

12 Answers 12

up vote 41 down vote accepted

Sometimes, not only in English but in all languages, we want to emphasize certain situations. And then the language itself gives us devices that aren't always common, but we use them anyways, based on known and meaningful expressions.

I am very hungry

We can depict that the subject has surpassed the status of just "hungry" for they must have stayed a long time without eating. This is a known meaningful expression.

Murder is very illegal

From this, even if it doesn't make much sense in the binary nature of the word "legal", we can depict that "murder" is a crime that, morally or ethically, has surpassed the status of "illegal".

We can state that by looking at another not-so-serious crime:

Parking on the sidewalk is illegal

Yeah, we all know it is illegal and wrong. But it is a petty crime compared to murder. In some countries murder is penalized with life imprisonment, even with death penalty, while parking on the sidewalk gives you a fine and, in the worst of the cases, your car is towed.

We can still say that "Murder is illegal", of course it is, but in the sentence, the "very illegal" was made to emphasize.

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To add to this, parking on the sidewalk would still get you a fine in most places. A "not very illegal" example would be failing to signal before changing lanes. (Yes, believe it or not, that's actually illegal.) – Wildcard Mar 11 at 23:42
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Another example: In 49 of the 50 US states (not NH), a law requires adults to use seatbelts. Many people disapprovingly roll eyes at violators, not don't care very much. Some states ban driving with cell phones, and some of those bans only apply when a person doesn't have a hands-free device. These laws are voted in by congresspeople, who debate things. However, (with rare exceptions, e.g. maybe international diplomats) intentional murder of born people is quite illegal (very illegal), in that it really isn't controversial. Changing that, to become legal, is very unlikely. – TOOGAM Mar 12 at 3:36
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I'm very hungry is I'm famished! :) – Maulik V Mar 12 at 4:33
    
Oh, thanks, Wildcard and TOOGAM, I was searching too hard in my mind for what would be good to represent a mild crime, but I couldn't think of anything else than parking on sidewalks hahaha! – Joao Arruda Mar 12 at 15:57
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@Wildcard I recently read a study indicating that failure to signal was the leading cause of accidents (which is in turn one of the leading causes of death). Not hard to believe it's actually illegal, and it should be "very illegal" IMO. – Matthew Read Mar 13 at 0:29

"Very illegal" refers to something that is punished more severely, and/or treated more seriously than other illegal things. It's something like "felony", but with a looser, informal definition.

So while jaywalking and (non-excessive) speeding are illegal, they are not "very illegal".

While murder and Pump & Dump schemes are both illegal and punished severely, it would be a little odd or humorous to see murder described as "very illegal" (or "illegal", for that matter), since everyone already knows that. It wouldn't be so odd to hear that descriptor on Pump & Dump schemes, which are not so obviously illegal.


Along similar lines, you can't be a little pregnant, but you can be very pregnant (meaning, very far along in the pregnancy so that you are very large).

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+1, but while someone might not be a little pregnant, I might say she is barely pregnant, meaning very early in her pregnancy. – choster Mar 11 at 21:44
    
@choster Barely can only be legal. Next you gonna tell me that Bruce Jenner is barely pregnant. – A.S. Mar 12 at 0:11
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I am tempted to accept this rather than Joao Arruda's most upvoted, as I interpret that the word "very" here means both "confirmation" and "emphasis" of the severity of the illegal act. It appears to me "murder is very illegal" sounds uncanny, as you said everyone knows that. Similarly, no one would ever say "murder is actually illegal" we don't need to confirm it. We would say "pump and dump is actually illegal", but to signify that it is both "actually illegal" and "severe", the word "very" is being used. As such I think this answer helps me more, if it is true and if I interpreted it right. – Hay Mar 12 at 5:25
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compare and contrast "barely legal" :) – Dewi Morgan Mar 12 at 6:02
    
With "murder is very illegal" I didn't want to use an everyday sentence, it was more to exemplify, to state a clear and obvious situation in which the crime is so serious, it is understandable to use "very" – Joao Arruda Mar 12 at 16:30

It is a rhetorical device that in this case has no specific legal meaning.

It is not a case of a parking ticket being "slightly illegal", breaking and entering being "illegal", and murder being "very illegal".

In this case it is used as an intensifier on a binary situation: legal / illegal / very illegal is similar to alive / dead / very dead and also to awake / asleep / fast asleep, etc.

It seems to be used in this case to denote that some activity is unambiguously illegal with absolutely no grey areas.

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Of course we all know there's a big difference between "mostly dead" and "all dead". – Darrel Hoffman Mar 13 at 14:43

The unspoken principle here is: assume that a group of people are living together in a completely lawless land. What is the first, most important law you would have? Murder, theft, and rape are the "big three" things that your first police force would try to control. You would probably not worry as much, or at all, about things like littering until you had taken care of the murder/theft/rape issue. Informally, in English you say that murder is "more illegal" than littering. Murder is "severely illegal" and littering is "less illegal".

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Actually, I think treason is normally taken more seriously than murder, theft, and rape (and punished more severely) by most societies. We got rid of the death penalty for murder a long time ago in the UK, but in principle you could still be executed for treason until the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act became law – FumbleFingers Mar 14 at 17:02

In principle, illegal ought to be a logical thing: true or false, however the expression "highly illegal" does crop up regularly in news stories: there is even a Facebook group for it.

According the the press, examples of "highly illegal" are: attempting to claim a tax allowance for a crop of cannabis, modifying the exhaust pipe (muffler) of your car to make it extra-noisy, defacing banknotes, and anything Obama does that upsets Republicans (ie anything Obama does).

Looking at this list, and taking into account that web sites featuring this kind of journalism use "shocking" quite a lot, I think we can safely put these examples down to journalistic hyperbole.

As Alex K says, there are degrees of criminality: few people care about crimes that do not affect them, but anything that they might be a victim of might be "Highly illegal".

As for possible perpetrators, would they say something like:

I wouldn't do that mate, it's highly illegal.

I think not: they would say

I wouldn't do that mate, you might get caught.

There are other words that work in this way. If something is inflammable, it burns. "Is it inflammable?" Gets a yes or no answer, but we talk about petrol (gasoline) being highly inflammable. A material can have this property or not: in addition, the material can display the property to a greater or lesser degree. This seems sensible: the paradox with the law is that we expect it to be logical: yes or no, with no degrees.

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Even in cases where you can define an absolute property of something, you can still apply degrees to them to indicate relatively closeness to that condition. Two lines meeting at a 90° angle are perpendicular. If they meet at 89°, they are not perpendicular, but they are still more perpendicular than they would be at 88°. Language is not mathematical. – choster Mar 11 at 21:56
    
"Language is not mathematical" - so true! – GreenAsJade Mar 11 at 23:08
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@GreenAsJade Some language is not precise like much of math is. (Some language much be.) I know some mathematicians would object to "more perpendicular" as silly. Another example: "more dead". An organism is either dead, or not (which is quite binary, like being perpendicular). Although, a person who is disfigured beyond recognition might be "more dead", meaning that the person is so dead that there is instantly no question of whether the person is alive. Not only is the person not breathing, but the person doesn't even look potentially alive. – TOOGAM Mar 12 at 3:43
    
@choster If you take the curvature of spacetime into account, some 90 angles can be less perpendicular than others ;) – user45623 Mar 12 at 10:06
    
I find more dead to be ridiculous, even when applied to "a person who is disfigured beyond recognition." This person is not more dead; he or she is disfigured beyond recognition. The same for very dead and very illegal and to me, very pregnant. In general the use of very is "very" overused and weakens one's writing and brings forth unnecessary spoken uses as in the original post. – AlanCarmack Mar 14 at 16:25

In addition to other answers ("very illegal" meaning a worse crime), it's also used as "definitely illegal".

For example, making a u-turn is illegal in some cases, but may not be in others. One can contrast this with other crimes like stealing which are more definitely illegal.

So "very" here may also be used to emphasize the certainty of the statement.

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Don't try to find a precise legal definition of "very illegal". It's an informal phrase, expressing an opinion that a certain act is particularly flagrant. Contrast this with attitudes to certain seemingly minor offences which are flagged by some as The Worst Crime Ever. It's surprising sometimes what crimes can attract a punishment more severe than is routinely handed out for murder.

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Can you explicit what you mean by The Worst Crime Ever/seemingly minor offences? I have a hard time understanding what you're referring to. – Hay Mar 12 at 15:21
    
An assault on a child or woman can be assessed as meriting harsher punishment than murdering a male adult. Compare also the sentences given for minor drug offences in America in the 1960s. – Laurence Payne Mar 12 at 16:11

"Very illegal" is often used with the full knowledge that the speaker is referring to an absolute and that there is a bit of nonsense in its literal interpretation. The phrase is meant as an irony to point out that an act is so clearly severe enough that there is no debate about whether the law would prosecute. By using a special term, "very illegal", the speaker is distancing the act from other, less severe acts that would be considered illegal. Also, the use of a slightly non-sensical term is intentionally flippant toward the discussion because the act is so clearly wrong that it shouldn't be considered at all so the speaker is expressing distaste for the legality being the deciding factor in whether it is done.

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Using "very" like this is designed to increase the impact in a revelatory declaration. In the example you provided from the video, the speaker uses this incorrectly. Everybody knows that stock fraud is illegal, so trying to emphasize the revelation of a known is.. well it's nonsense because it's not a revelation.

It's the equivalent as if he had of just given five minute talk about water and closed with

"What's the point of all this? Water is very wet."

Unless it was being worked into some kind of joke where it was intended to be awkward or sarcastic, it's just plain awkward because absolutely everybody already knows this.

Some correct usages:

Example 1

A person is describing the modifications they've made to their car. He closes with

"it's very fast and very illegal."

In this case the legality of the modifications were possibly questionable to the person hearing about them, or the person hearing about them is only seeing the modifications put into practice for the first time. In either case, the emphasis is placed there to increase the impact of the reveal and, from one enthusiast to another, the appeal of the thing being discussed.

Example 2

A salesman is talking to a potential client about system monitoring software. He closes with

"Make sure you only install and operate this on your own devices. Installing this on a device you do not own or have permission to would be classified as wiretapping, and that would be very illegal."

In this case we're kind of breaking our soft rule about the thing being emphasized being an unknown, but not really. The emphasis is being put on the overall statement, it's still a revelation (most likely) to the intended audience that using this seemingly benign and beneficial thing incorrectly could amount to serious criminal charges.

Example 3

Just to confirm what others have pointed out in comments and such, the emphasis modifies the impact of the revelation dramatically. Consider two people taking a long drive in a truck. Hours into the drive, the passenger declares to the driver

"I'm very hungry!"

which could also be expressed with

"I'm starving!"

The driver would typically respond somewhat concerned and possibly feeling guilty, and may respond along the lines of

"why didn't you say something earlier? I've passed five stops already!"

On the other hand, if the passenger casually revealed

"I'm hungry"

the driver may respond with

"yeah, there's a stop coming up soon where we can grab a bite."

In Comedy

As previously hinted at, this can be used comically when the declaration is revealing a known fact or a fact that ought to be obviously true. A quote from the movie Ride Along (2014)[1]:

Time - Phrase

00:58:09 Shut up.

00:58:11 Before I tase you in the mouth.

00:58:12 That's illegal. That's very illegal.

00:58:17 What?

00:58:18 Did you hear about Runflat?

In this case, it's the absurdity of someone casually declaring as if its legal, the intent to taser someone in the mouth that is comical. It's clearly not legal, and the open objection adding the emphasis "very" adds to the comedy by someone emphasizing what is already known. Obviously the characters, body language and tone make or break the scene, but the language is important.

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To be fair I did not know stock market manipulation was illegal. Initially I didn't understand how buying stocks low to sell high was anything close to illegal (I was like isn't it the point of stock market?), but from what I understood as I followed the talk, it is the injection of false/artificial information to convince other people into buying stock that is illegal. – Hay Mar 13 at 12:37
    
@Hay Right, of course the point of buying and selling is to profit. It really is a rich persons casino, but just like anything else, purposely deceiving people to profit is illegal. – Technik Empire Mar 13 at 12:42

Legality is a tricky issue in English because most English speaking countries (actually, all countries I am aware of) have overly strict laws. The idea is that you can't prove 100% of criminal cases, so you want to make sure that, given a criminal, you can pin something on them. There's a well trod meme that says that the average American commits 3 felonies a day.

Given this social situation, we are used to the idea that one might do something illegal, get caught, and talk their way out of it. We are used to the idea of speeding and talking our way out of speeding tickets.

A phrasing like "very illegal" is used when a speaker is concerned that the listener might assume an act, such as Pump and Dump, is the kind of illegal act that you might be able to weasel your way out of punishment. By using the phrase "very illegal," the implication is that, if you are caught, you will be prosecuted to the fullest. It also implies that society will not treat you kindly.

An extreme example could be child molesters. Child molestation is "very illegal." If you are caught, you can expect the prosecutor to try for the maximum sentence, and the public to look down on you. In fact, once you are convicted and sentenced to prison time, even the other inmates look down on child molesters. Contrast that with white collar crime, which is typically not considered "very illegal." One case involved a CEO laundering money to prop up his stock price. The estimated cost to shareholders was $18million. He was given a 7 day prison sentence.

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There are better phrases to use. One might write or say that murder is a capital offense, while jaywalking is a misdemeanor. Both activities are illegal. The richness of English comes from the variety of nouns and adjectives which describe so many things, actions, and concepts in specific ways. The addition of an adverb may provide some emotional flavor or personal feeling that the writer wishes to convey. In general such contrived phrases may be considered stylistically immature by some. As the language evolves what was elegant falls out of favor and new turns of phrase become acceptable.

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Not sure if anyone has said this yet. Lost track reading the answers.

Very illegal can also be used to talk someone out of a crime. Such as someone thinking they can drive after just one alcoholic drink, or stealing from the office (this is not that illegal but the consequences are still high). It can also be an indirect way of saying you want no part of it and you will not cover for them or possibly go straight to the applicable authority.

How much it will impact your life regardless of the legality can make it "very illegal", such as a minor crime that would also cost you your job.

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protected by FumbleFingers Mar 14 at 16:56

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