What is the effect of "very well" in the phrase

I can't very well talk to you and concentrate on sanding this at the same time.


The expression carries two or three effects:

  1. Intensification: something like "absolutely can't".

  2. Obviousness: bringing to the person's attention the fact that this is clearly not doable and they should have realized that.

  3. Contradiction: highlighting the fact that what you can't do carries some inherent contradiction or impossibility.

You can't very well go to Australia when you're still bedridden.

Note that this doesn't appear to be the same use as the other one you identified, which I would say is primarily concessive or dismissive depending on tone.

I would venture to say that "very well" only appears with modals, and that the senses above are triggered by negative modals (won't, can't, couldn't, etc.).

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  • 1
    very well is not outdated where I come from. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 25 '19 at 14:44
  • @T I couldn't very well have known that! Just kidding. Where is that? – Luke Sawczak Jan 25 '19 at 14:46
  • I'm in southeastern Pennsylvania (Central Atlantic AmE dialect). The phrase is used frequently in a wide variety of contemporary genres. "You can't very well send out questionnaires to every female in town, nor can you make a door-to-door survey." Married Men Make the Best Lovers by Ruth Dickson. (2014) . "I can't afford to be off of work, and plus I can't very well tell them I need time off to kick my addiction." What the Supplement Manufacturers Don't Want You to Know! by Mark Wimberley (2002). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 25 '19 at 14:54
  • It's a synonym for "just" or "up and". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 25 '19 at 14:55
  • Meaning seems pretty in line then, but commonness not. Let me come back to this later... – Luke Sawczak Jan 25 '19 at 15:00

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