I very like it.

It may sound somewhat weird to native ears, but a lot of my Chinese students produce sentences like this one. What is weird here is simple. First, the adverb “very” seems to be misplaced. It should either be moved to the end of the sentence, or be replaced with another adverb like “really”. Second, if it is moved to the end, it cannot simply stand there alone but requires another word “much” to follow, as in:

I like it very much.

As usual, this can easily be discarded as an error in grammar, but what is more interesting is the cause of this error.

Apparently, this error is a result of what we call language transfer. More specifically, it is a result of the different positions we place adverbs in English and Chinese respectively.

Before we move on to analyze the adverb concerned here: very, let’s have a quick review on the nature of adverbs.

Unlike other word categories such as noun, verb or preposition, which all have general rules governing their behaviors, adverb is very much a miscellany of words that do not fall neatly into other categories. In school we often say adverbs are used to describe verbs and adjectives, but the truth is more complicated. Some of its uses are shown below:

1. She violently pushed him out of the crowded room.
2. She pushed him out of the very crowded room.
3. Consequently, she pushed him out of the crowded room.
4. She pushed him out of the crowded room yesterday.

Violently in (1), which describes the manner of an action (verb), is usually called a manner adverb. Very in (2) describes the degree of a state, it is thus called a degree adverb. In (3), consequently does not describe a certain action or state, but the relation of the entire sentence with its context. It is called a sentential adverb. Finally, although yesterday in (4) can be analyzed as a noun syntactically, semantically it serves to describe or give information about the time of the action concerned. Therefore, functionally, it is also very similar to adverbs and is called a temporal adverbial.

As you can probably notice, these adverbs can occur in very different positions in English. For instance, violently can be inserted at 4 different locations in (1) :

5a. Violently she pushed him out of the crowded room. (sentence-initial)
5b. She violently pushed him out of the crowded room. (pre-verbal)
5c. She pushed him violently out of the crowded room. (post-verbal )
5d. She pushed him out of the crowded room violently. (verbal-phrase-final)

This, however, is not always true of all adverbs. In particular, degree adverbs are much more restrictive. Among the following sentences, (6a) is definitely out. (6b) does not sound very right, although (6c) may be acceptable for many. (6d) is okay when you are trying to contrast “on the rack” and “on you“, for example. Finally, (6e) probably sounds perfectly right to all native speakers.

6a. * Very much I like this one on the rack.
6b. ?? I very much like this one.
6c. I very much like this one on the rack.
6d. ? I like this one very much on the rack.
6e. I like this one on the rack very much.

To explicate all the distribution patterns of degree adverbs in English will require a much longer discussion; but all in all, the verbal-phrase-final position is the default position to place a degree adverb. This is more evident if you consider other degree adverbs like a lot, a little and the negative adverb much. In all the following cases, the verbal-phrase-final position is the only grammatical position to place these adverbs.

7. I like this one a lot.
8. I slept a little before I came.
9. I didn’t enjoy the show much.

In Chinese, the distribution is quite different. Degree adverbs consistently occur in the pre-verbal position. In other words, only (10b) is acceptable. This explains why many Chinese speakers make the mistake of putting degree adverbs in the pre-verbal position.

10a. * 非常 喜歡 這一個
  feichang wo xihuan zheyige
  very much I like this one
  “I like this one very much”
10b. 非常 喜歡 這一個
10c. * 喜歡 非常 這一個
10d. * 喜歡 這一個 非常

But there is still one more complication to the problem. In English, the adjective modifier very and the verb modifier very much are distinct and usually not interchangeable. In Chinese, however, they are simply the same. Compare (10b) and (11), the same word 非常 is used for both the adjective and the verb modifiers.

11. 一個 非常 漂亮的 女孩
  ta shi yige feichang piaoliangde nühai
  she is one very beautiful girl
  “She is a very beautiful girl.”

Consequently, a lot of Chinese simply equate 非常 with the English word very, and use it even when they mean to modify a verb.

With an understanding of these differences between the two languages, it is perhaps not surprising to find people saying “I very like it” any more.


† There are reasons to argue that (5c) is only a derivation of (5d). See More on the centrifuge.

‡ When we say the adverb is post-verbal here, we don’t mean it is really immediately after the verb. In English, an adverb does not normally precede the object and follow the verb immediately, but occurs at the end of the entire verbal phrase. The only exception is with the verb to be, which can be immediately followed by an adverb. In Romance languages like French and Italian, however, the default position for adverbs to occur is immediately after the verb:

French:

12. J’aime beaucoup ça
  I love very much this
  “I like this one very much”

Italian:

13. Amo molto questo
  I love very much this
  “I like this one very much”