He got to the top and was (1) very frustrated when he found that (2) someone else (3) had reached it earlier. (4)

This is a question which I came across while attempting a test.

It asked me to find out whether there is any grammatical or idiomatic error in it. And the error, if any, will be in only one part of the sentence.

It seems there is no error it. But the test claims very is wrong here.

And the explanation is as

Very is used with adjectives, past participles used as adjectives and adverbs.

E.g. I am very pleased to get your letter.

But very is not used with past participle that have a passive meaning. Much, very much or greatly is used instead.

E.g. He was much loved by everyone.

Here, the past participle frustrated is in passive form. Hence, much must replace very. Thus, the error lies in part 2.

Shouldn't we use very in this case? Is there any rule such that we shouldn't use very in passive voice?

Could anyone please explain to me?

  • 2
    I would question this part "Here, the past participle frustrated is in passive form". Frustrated here seems to be an adjective not part of a passive construct (although the difference can be slight in some cases)
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2016 at 13:46
  • 2
    I don't see anything wrong with it and I'm a native (American) English speaker. I've never heard a specific rule about using very with passives, which doesn't necessarily mean that one doesn't exist and there could be some dialect variations here too
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2016 at 13:51
  • 1
    I agree with the link that those examples don't work with just "very", but I don't think all verbs work that way. I would suggest that the verbs which are fine as just "very" when seemingly passive would be those where the adjective is much more commonly used than the passive. e.g. "I was very tired by work". That could be passive ("Work greatly tired me") but "tired" is a very common word more so than "tire"
    – eques
    Oct 3, 2016 at 14:20
  • 1
    The explanation in the book (please provide title, and year of publication) is wrong. "He was very frustrated when he discovered that the exam had been postponed" is not in the passive voice. I could just as easily say: He was very relieved when he discovered that the exam had been postponed. The subject is "he" and the adjectives "frustrated" and "relieved" describe his state. The example cited with "much loved" is in the passive voice, because the subject RECEIVES the action i.e. "love", and the sentence tells us who the agent of "love" is, "....the person was loved by everyone. "
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 4, 2016 at 11:42
  • 1
    The active voice would be: "Everyone loved him very much" Likewise, if the book claims "He got to the top and was (1) very frustrated when he found that... etc" is in the passive, what would be the active voice?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 4, 2016 at 11:43

2 Answers 2


It is a general rule that very is used before ordinary adjectives and adverbs, whereas before the -ed form of verbs it should be replaced by much or very much (not very alone).

At the same time, some -ed forms have come to be treated as ordinary adjectives, and they can take very alone , e.g. tired, pleased, limited, etc. So, there may be marginal cases where the safest way to intensify an adjective or adverb correctly would be to use very much. (Longman Guide to English usage, 1988, p.754)

In your case, perhaps if there were this option, it might work fine for the test-makers:

He got to the top and was very much frustrated when he found that someone else had reached it earlier.

And since "much" alone was the alternative, you should have stuck to the rule.

There's also a very good, in my opinion, and much more detailed explanation of the subtleties of the use of very and very much, based on the difference between past participles used as adjectives and past participles that have a passive meaning. It was provided two years ago by @Shoe, an active member of the ELU site and ESL teacher.

Here it goes word for word:

Past participles that have a passive meaning have an explicit or implicit agent.

She is admired by everyone who knows her (explicit).

Your help is appreciated (implicit, by me).

The price of petrol has been reduced (implicit, by the oil company).

Such past participles are typically not modified by very, but by very much or an alternative adverb:

She is greatly admired. (?She is very admired.)

Your help is very much appreciated. (?Your help is very appreciated.)

The price of petrol has been significantly reduced. (?The price of petrol has been very reduced.)

Past participles used as adjectives very often describe mental or emotional states, and therefore have a person or animal as their subject. There is no explicit agent, and often not even an implicit one. Such past participles are typically modified by very, not by very much.

I'm very bored. (?I'm very much bored.)

John's been very depressed for several days. (?John's been very much depressed for several days.)

She looked very disappointed. (?She looked very much disappointed.) Here is the source.

  • Thanks for providing the link. But I doubt whether frustrated has a passive meaning here. Could you clarify about this? Oct 4, 2016 at 11:53
  • @Ganesh.R - I take it that "by the fact that someone else had reached it earlier" makes it.
    – Victor B.
    Oct 4, 2016 at 12:14

Google yields a total of 35 results for "very much frustrated when" (note I closed the searched item in quotes), and only 16 results in Google Books.

Smaran was very much frustrated when he first arrived in the United States as he did not receive much help from the institution and he commented, “Institution should not take it for granted that international students know everything about the ...
A Study of the Academic Adjustment Experiences of Six Asian Indian International Students at a research Level II University.

Instead for the idiomatic "very frustrated when" Google has over 66,400 hits. and Google Books produces an impressive 4,090 results

He began fiercely digging in his pocket for something and seemed very frustrated when he couldn't find what he was looking for. “Oh no, lady, we needed to return to the van, I don't have my keys,” he said.
Unfathomable by Shannon Whitford

Clearly, despite the explanation cited by the OP's unnamed source, people do use the expression: very frustrated, and there is nothing to suggest that it is in any way, shape or form, ungrammatical or non standard.

  • @Rompey hi, you're very kind, but you should feel more confident about your own English skills, as for me, I don't have a perfect command of anything, I only wish!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 4, 2016 at 23:11

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