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Sphenoid: of, relating to, or being a winged compound bone of the base of the cranium

I found out we cannot say “this alien is very sphenoid” (this alien has lots of sphenoid bones).

Rainy: marked by, abounding with, or bringing rain

We can say “today is very rainy” (it rains a lot).

I cannot see any difference.

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    Sphenoid is an exceedingly rare and technical word. And it is mostly a noun.
    – James K
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 10:09
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    I am a native speaker and I have never heard ''sphenoid'', so I learned a new word today. Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 21:54
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    In crystallography, "sphenoid" is a description of the shape of (part of) a crystal. You could certainly say that "this alien is very sphenoidal" (note the adjectival form of sphenoid) but 99.999% of people would have no idea what you meant!
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 22:18
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    I'm pretty sure a native speaker can literally make up phrases and words, so they can actually say "This alien is very sphenoid" and it becomes correct... in a way the native speakers define the rules, and not adhere to them. If you don't believe me, just keep this in mind and compare the latest memes with ones 5 years from now.
    – Nelson
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 3:08
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    Just based on the definition, "sphenoid" doesn't seem gradable. Relation may be true to varying degrees (something can be more or less related), but this doesn't extend to words that are defined as being related to things. "Oral hygiene" does not really mean hygiene that's related to the mouth to some relative degree, it means "hygiene of the mouth". It's already as related as it can be. I wouldn't make sense to say "hygiene more of the mouth".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 13:40

4 Answers 4

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I think that you have misunderstood the meaning of very. Here is the entry from the Cambridge Dictionary:

(used to add emphasis to an adjective or adverb) to a great degree or extremely

If you want to say "a lot of", you do not use very: you use "a lot of" in informal conversation, or many (for countable things) or much (for uncountable things)... and many/much/a lot of must be followed by a noun.

Deciding whether an adjective is gradable is not an exact science. There is no complete list of ungradable adjectives, dictionaries do not carry this information, and, as this Ngram graph shows, usage has changed over the past 200 years. In 1850, it was perfectly acceptable to say "very perfect" or "very excellent", whereas those expressions are not regarded as acceptable in modern English.

It is possible that our perception of gradeability has changed, but it is more likely that using very with a non-gradable adjective was considered reasonable then, but is now considered over-dramatic.

As a general guide, an adjective is considered ungradable if something is either X or not-X. For example, true is ungradable- something is either true or it's not. You will still hear people say "very true", though.

On the other hand, with an adjective like cold, there are varying degrees of coldness, and so it is gradable.

Adjective for parts of the body are definitely ungradable: something is dorsal if it relates to the back, and it's not dorsal if it doesn't relate to the back. There is no in-between.

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    It reminds me of “a more perfect union.”
    – user142478
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 10:26
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    "True" is very gradable, because statements can lie (no pun intended) anywhere on the scale from "wholly untrue" to "true with metaphysical certitude". For example, the most effective lies contain some truth.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 4:17
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    On gradability not being an exact science, for example, "dead" is not gradable, but "very dead" has been used for emphasis in the right context (example: Spock: "Is this a dead man, doctor?" McCoy: "Very dead, Mr. Spock."). It seems like it's exactly the non-gradability that makes "very dead" work here.
    – eipi10
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 6:55
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    @RonJohn "true" is only gradable for politicians. For engineers, lawyers, philosophers, and many other people it is non-gradable. As you say, though, parts of something can be true, so it is reasonable to say "partially true" but it is not OK to say "slightly true".
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 11:07
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    Of note: "very" is also an adjective, with 3 meanings: "mere" ("the very thought of it"), "same/identical" ("the very spot I stood"), or "real/actual/true" ("her very best" - see also "veritable") So, to say that something is "very perfect" or "very excellent" may not always be a case of grading it, but instead of claiming it is "truly perfect" or "truly excellent" (both phrases still in modern use), rather than metaphorically so. Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 21:20
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Same way we know any other part of English: from the meaning discovered by listening to the use and examples of others.

In the case of sphenoid, the word is so rare that there is no idiom that extends the adjective "sphenoid" from a type of bone to the possessor of that bone.

We can say "Monday was rainy". The meaning of "rainy" can apply to days. It is then possible to note it is common for some days to have more rain, so those days can be "more rainy". That gradable sense is often used.

We can't say "John is sphenoid". That is not the meaning of the word. If we can't say "John is sphenoid", then we certainly can't say "John is very sphenoid" either.

We can say "A sphenoid pin" to mean "a pin that is used for pinning the sphenoid bone" But what would "very sphenoid" mean in that case? The meaning isn't gradable (and it isn't gradable in your language either).

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  • I think it’s related with English. In English, I can say a brain is very cellular (a brain consists of many cells). But it doesn’t work on some languages.
    – user142478
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 10:17
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    I don't think you can say "a brain is very cellular"
    – James K
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 10:51
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    @user142478 You cannot say 'a brain is very cellular'. And if I read the sentence, my native speaker instincts would tell me it means 'a brain is very small' (an incorrect statement).
    – Angelos
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 11:33
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    @user142478, if when you say "very cellular" you mean to say "composed of very many cells", then you are incorrect. Native speakers would not understand your meaning. "Very cellular" means (if it means anything) "very much of or related to cells". As with the "dorsal" example, it is hard to imagine a case where you would want to say this.
    – The Photon
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 18:11
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    @user142478 At the risk of these comments getting moved to chat: In, "Although morphologically most cellular membranes look alike," the statement is that Of all the cellular membranes in the world, nearly all look alike. Here most isn't acting as an intensifier, but as a determiner meaning "greatest in amount, quantity, or degree." Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 0:52
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When sphenoid is an adjective, it is an anatomical usage, and technical usage at that. One would never apply sphenoid as a multiple, as in its state as a noun, it is strictly singular. One could, alternatively, use ". . .has lots of sphenoid bones".

However, in any case, it is not gradable. One could determine this status (gradable or not) by understanding the definition of the words. In the case of sphenoid the meaning provided is a singular one. It is either one bone, or a single bony structure. On the other hand, for rain, or rainy, we are discussing something with a variable quantity - not an individual raindrop.

Just out of curiosity, I put this to a little test, and asked Google for a random adjective. Google gave me Pyrrhic. Good choice! This describes something singular, the typical example is a Pyrrhic victory, and victory is singular, right? Except, like the rain, whatever the battle was fought with (soldiers, money, whatever) is, like the raindrops that make up the rain, a quantity. Thus, it is gradable, and one could use a very Pyrrhic victory to indicate a higher cost.

While this next may be less useful in consideration of what is gradable, or not, there is a case where very sphenoid could be used. If one was in a discussion of alien anatomy, one could say:

This bone is very sphenoid.

This usage example is comparative, essentially saying the bone structure in discussion is very similar in some way to bones we identify as sphenoid bones. Because sphenoid is singular, it would be the degree of similarity that was quantifiable, and thus gradable. (It is also a very uncomfortable usage, and I would think one would more likely hear This bone is very similar to the sphenoid. This latter would certainly be clearer and more understandable.)

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    "This bone is very sphenoidal."
    – RonJohn
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 4:21
  • @RonJohn Actually, I quite agree that would be a more likely usage. Intending it to be understood as an adjective, rather than a noun, as in my example, has a high likelihood of having a listener just say "Huh? What?" LOL.
    – Mark G B
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 10:20
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In the Cambridge dictionary, I only see sphenoid listed as a noun. In any case, this is a less technical but hopefully intuitive answer.

Think of "sphenoid" as a name or type rather than a characteristic or word that describes something. One comparison would be the keys on a keyboard. We have the "Escape Key" or the "Enter Key".

It would not make sense to say "this keyboard is very Enter". It certainly would not be understood as "this keyboard has lots of Enter keys".

Likewise, we have "Front Seat" and "Back Seat", but saying "this car is very front" does not make any sense.

However, the phrases "this key is very large" or "this seat is very comfortable" are perfectly understandable, because both "large" and "comfortable" are words that describe something with varying degrees. In other words, you could ask, "how large?" or "how comfortable?" and you could reply with something like "larger than the other seat".

To expand on this further, the sentence has to make sense without very. For example, "this key is large" or "this seat is comfortable" both make sense. However, "this keyboard is Enter" does not make sense.

Going back to the quoted definition of sphenoid:

Sphenoid: of, relating to, or being a winged compound bone of the base of the cranium

This is essentially saying that this "adjective" is meant to be applied to a bone (ignoring "relating to"). So if you say "this alien is sphenoid", if it made sense, it would imply that the alien is a bone of type sphenoid. Not that the alien has a sphenoid bone. Therefore, "this alien is very sphenoid" cannot mean that the alien has lots of sphenoid bones.

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