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I came across the following sentence in which ‘very’ is used before ‘many’. When do we use ‘very’ before ‘many’?

Very many people have complained about the situation.

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We use 'very' to intensify (make stronger), or emphasise, whatever follows it. You would write, e.g. "I have read very many books" if you wish to emphasise that you have read an unusually large number of books.

We can modify many with very, a great or so:

Very many people have complained about the situation.

There were a great many questions which were left unanswered at the end of the investigation.

Why do so many people watch reality TV shows?

Many (Cambridge Dictionary)

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Native English speakers don't normally say "very many"; that is to say it is not incorrect but is not idiomatic. We usually only combine those words in the negative, for example:

Not very many people have complained.

I see the dictionary quotation which says it is acceptable to use it in the affirmative but it doesn't sound familiar to me as a native speaker at all. "So many" and "a great many" are much more common, as indicated by this ngram. It shows that "very many" has always been the least common and that it has steadily decreased in use, whereas "so many" has become more frequently used in recent years.

Unfortunately

  • The sentence I quoted is from dictionary. I read some where that it is used mainly in negative sentences. So, I was wondering whether it is correct to use in affirmative sentences as well. – Opel Mar 31 at 15:47
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    You can use it in affirmative sentences. – Michael Harvey Mar 31 at 19:31
  • @opel Yes you can use it affirmatively, but you will sound like an English learner, because native speakers rarely use it. You read somewhere it is mainly used in negative, I've just told you the same. – Astralbee Mar 31 at 21:56
  • I agree with @MichaelHarvey- American native speaker here, and I don’t think using “very many” in the affirmative is wrong or necessarily makes you sound like an English learner. – Mixolydian Mar 31 at 22:17
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    @Mixolydian - The phrase can be found in very many news articles. Granted, most of those are indeed in the negative; still, one doesn’t have to look hard to find fitting examples: What we need is a bottom up solution which benefits the very many people on low incomes. Also, in a recent New York Times story about the Brexit vote: In reality, he said, in a choice between yes and no, “there may still be very many who want something in between that.” – J.R. Apr 4 at 1:16

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