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  1. He's not good. 2. He's not very good.

What does "very" do to the statement? Does it make him sound less or more good compared to the first sentence?

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2 Answers 2

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It is not possible to answer this question without more context.

It could mean either.

In short, it is ambiguous.

But the expression, in the negative, is generally used to play down ability.

He's not very good. I wouldn't employ him. (Negative)

He's good although he's not yet very good. While he needs a bit more experience, he would be fine for the small job you have in mind. (Positive)

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"Very" is an intensifier. But in actual usage, it can have different nuances.

In a positive construction:

  1. He's good.
  2. He's very good.

the "very" intensifies the positive meaning and acts as a superlative: he is better than just "normally" good.
When used in a negative construction like this:

  1. He's not good.
  2. He's not very good.

the "very" actually intensifies the negative meaning. Here, the second statement often implies he is worse than the person described in the first statement.

As Ronald Sole points out, context can make a lot of difference. If you're talking about someone's moral character, "not good" and "not very good" are rather similar. If you're talking about someone's musical ability (for example), "not very good" is worse than simply "not good."

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