How to use very and not very – English language learning

You can do a lot of things with the word very in English. The simplest use of very is as an intensifer. An intensifier is a word that makes another word stronger or adds emphasis.

Very as an intensifier

You put very directly in front of the adjective or adverb that you want to intensify.

In the sentences below, strong and heavy are adjectives. Very adds intensity.

My friend Sasha is very strong.
She can lift very heavy weights.

very as an intensifier with positive adjectives

This is Sasha in action. She is very strong.

Very works the same way with adverbs. Remember, an adverb is a word that tells you more about a verb, an adjective, another adverb, or a whole sentence.

In the examples below, hard and easily are adverbs, and very add emphasis to verb phrases.

Sasha has trained very hard for many years.
Now she can lift 300 kilos very easily.

Not very

But what happens if you add the word not to very? Does it just remove the emphasis? For example, what does the following sentence mean?

My friend Bob is not very strong.

Does it mean:
a) Bob’s strength is normal/average
b) Bob’s strength is a little below normal/average
c) Bob’s strength is far below normal/average. In fact, Bob is WEAK.

The correct answer (for most speakers) is c.

Saying “Bob is not very strong” is like saying “Bob is weak.” The difference is that not very strong seems less direct than using a negatively charged word like weak. Being less direct is one way that speakers try to be polite (or less rude, depending on how you look at it).

Be careful when using not very with positive adjectives.

Bob is not very strong. This is like saying Bob is weak.

Be careful with not very

You need to be careful with not very when you use it with positively charged adjectives or adverbs, meaning words that you would use to compliment someone or their actions. For example, words like beautiful, good looking, nice, generous, smart, polite, friendly, good, impressive, etc.

Imagine the following situation. Bob decides he wants to work out and get strong, so he hires a personal trainer. He has met her for one training session. He later meets Sasha for coffee:

Sasha: So Bob, do you think of your new personal trainer?
Bob: She’s not very nice, I’m afraid.

Bob is saying that his new personal trainer is not nice at all, but he is being a little bit diplomatic about it by using the indirect not very formulation. If he wanted to be very blunt and direct, here are some things he could say:

She’s not nice at all.
She’s unpleasant.
She’s mean.
She’s disagreeable.

Sticking to not very nice gets Bob’s meaning across without being too blunt or aggressive.

Degrees of positive and negative emphasis

To sum up, let’s look at one more example using the positive adjective interesting and its “opposite,” the negative adjective boring. Imagine the following situation:

Bob is writing a book. Last week he gave a draft of his book to Sasha to read. Now Bob asks Sasha for her opinion on the book draft.

Bob: So Sasha, what do you think of my book?

Sasha’s possible responses, from most favorable to least favorable include:

a. It’s very interesting.
b. It’s interesting.
c. It’s not very interesting (meaning only slightly interesting)
d. It’s not very interesting (meaning not interesting at all)
d. It’s boring.
e. It’s very boring.

As you see, “not very interesting” ranges in meaning from “only a tiny bit interesting” to “not interesting at all.” The exact meaning will depend on many factors (the relationship between the speakers, the context, the intonation used, etc.).

There are of course many other possible ways Sasha could respond. If she values her friendship with Bob, she would most likely soften any negative statements about his book with various polite formulations. But that is beyond the scope of this short article; the point here is to show you to be careful when you use not very with positively charged adjectives (and adverbs).

Here are some helpful links to dictionary resources where you can learn more about how to use “not very” and see many example sentences.

Not very on (Collins Cobuild)

Not very on the Oxford Living Dictionary

042 – Make the Most of your Motivation part 2 of 2 – Real English Conversations

Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from Last week I shared the first part of a cool conversation I had with Dr. BJ Fogg, all about making the most of your motivation. Today you’ll be hearing part two, the final part of this conversation. If you missed the first part, make sure to go back and listen to part one before you listen to part two.

At the end of part one, BJ was telling me about his goal to get better at writing neatly on a whiteboard. He knew that he needed to practice a lot if he wanted to improve, so he wanted to make it as easy as possible to practice every day. In this part of the conversation, you’ll hear what he did to change his environment to make practicing easy, even on days when his motivation is low. You’ll also hear about how his practice routine is working for him.

As always, you can find the full transcript of this conversation, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at

Are you ready for the conversation? Let’s go!

Conversation transcript
BJ: One of the habits I’m doing right now is, I’m practicing whiteboarding. I’m practicing with markers writing on a whiteboard. You know, like teachers do.

Lori: Right.

BJ: And I want my handwriting to get much, much better and so, I’m practicing every day. But anyway, what I did was I went out and I got some marker paper, I got a bunch of markers, I got different whiteboards so I have whiteboards in different parts of my house. I have the marker paper, I have markers, I have a marker in my bathroom, one in my son’s room, I have a whole set in my office, I have a whole set in my other office. In other words, I made it really, really easy to practice writing with markers by getting all the materials and getting everything set up. And I did that when I was in a period of high motivation. So now, it’s really easy just to pick up a marker and practice. I don’t have to be super motivated.

Lori: Right. And– and you can tell yourself that, you know, “You have all your materials. It’s all easy right at hand.” You could even tell yourself, “I’m just going to write one sentence. That’s all I feel like doing right now and —

BJ: Yeah. In fact, just before your call, that’s what I did. I was sitting down and I was going to read but I was like, “No, no. I’m just going to, like, get out the marker board and write one sentence.” And I ended up filling up the entire marker board because I thought, “Oh, this is kind of fun. I’m going to keep going.”

Lori: Yeah —

BJ: And then, you called.

Lori: Have– have you — oh, I’m sorry to interrupt your practice…

BJ: [crosstalk] No, I was expecting your call.

Lori: …while you were on a roll. But yeah, and I guess…how’s your writing? Has it been improving? It must be improving.

BJ: Oh my gosh, it’s so much better.

Lori: And that —

BJ: Yeah.

Lori: Because I can imagine when you start seeing that your efforts are paying off, that that makes it more likely that you’re going to pick up those pens and do your practicing.

BJ: Yeah, and I– I think there are some behaviors or skills where it becomes clear pretty quickly — your progress. And then there are some, at least outcomes, where it’s harder to measure like, “Wow, am I really reducing my stress? Am I really getting healthier? Am I really…,” you know, whereas the whiteboarding — and then, I practice guitar every day…
Lori: Oh! Cool.

BJ: …and– and other things. Yeah, but in those two cases, it’s very clear that you’re getting better. It’s just obvious that you’re getting better. And the writing is one that I may have other people join me in because…and then take pictures before and after because it’s– it’s quite dramatic.
Lori: I…yeah, I can imagine if you practice. I mean, I haven’t practiced writing really since I was a kid; and learning to write and then, you know, you get your hand style and you think that that’s sort of what you’re stuck with for the rest of your life.


BJ: And part of it is changing; changing like your style is. You know, because my normal style doesn’t work very well on a whiteboard so I have, sort of…it’s almost like having, well, in some ways, speaking a different language because you shift into a different gear. So, I speak Spanish and French, and I know when I speak those languages, I go into a different gear. It’s just different. And when I’m writing on a whiteboard, it’s not like I’m writing in a notebook. It’s just…I’m drawing in a different– different movements and different ways of thinking, well, about the letters and the spacing of the letters. And on the whiteboard, I’m trying to get things very straight, up and down just like you might try to get an accent, like, you know, an accent right and you’re really focusing. I think there’s probably a lot in common about learning languages and practicing other skills.

Lori: There really is. I notice when I hear people talking about health and fitness, you could almost substitute…you know, just substitute some of the nouns and verbs and it would all…like the principles are all– all the same or often quite the same.

Yeah, time is almost up. I only have one final thing I would like to ask you and…

BJ: Okay.

Lori: …that is — sometimes I notice when I’m working with learners, they tend to beat themselves up when they feel like they’re not motivated or they’re not able to do hard things and I want…you know, ever since I saw or learned about the motivation wave, I thought, “Oh, that’s one thing I really want people to know, that it’s normal that your motivation is going to fluctuate.” And could you just confirm that for me?


BJ: Yeah, you know, there are times…there might be a day when all I do is write one word with my marker. But that’s okay because I’m still keeping the practice alive. So I think about it, I learned this a long time ago as a student…is I’m working on a very big paper that really is intimidating and it’s hard that I worked on it every day — I write at least one sentence. And I…the next day I can go back and erase the sentence if I want to. But I always write at least one sentence. And if that’s all I get done, it’s like, “Great! I did my sentence for the day.” And what happens is a lot like what we talked about, I write a sentence like, “Oh! I might as well write the next one…Oh! The next one…the next one.” Now later, you’ve got all of the paper done. But the key is, you cannot — on those days when you’re stressed or busy with other things or just somehow not motivated to do that behavior, just do a little, tiny bit and congratulate yourself for doing that little, tiny bit and move on.

Lori: Right, right. Oh, that is– that is such great advice.

BJ: As long as you keep taking those small steps, you’ll get there. Once you stop taking the steps, you don’t only just stop, you slide backwards. There’s no way to stay still. You’re either moving forward or you’re sliding backward.

Lori: Right, exactly. Well, BJ, thank you so much. And I know you’ve got another interview scheduled in the next minute but I just really…I’m so, so, so happy that you– that you took.. and wanted to take the time and let me…

BJ: Well…

Lori: …pick your brain a little bit.

BJ: Well, you are welcome. And helping people learn languages is really important work. I mean, when you learn a language, you’re able to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise, you’re able to do things you couldn’t otherwise, travel, experience — it just opens up a different world. And so I think it’s a wonderful thing to be helping people do.

Lori: Yeah. Oh, thank you so much.

Final words
That brings us to the end of this two part conversation with Dr. BJ Fogg. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did recording it!

You’ve learned about the motivation wave, that it’s totally normal for motivation to go up and down over time. You’ve also learned that when motivation is low, we can only do easy things. When motivation is high, that’s when we can do hard things. To find out more, I encourage you to watch the video of BJ’s talk that I’ve linked to in the transcript.

To get the most English learning benefit from this conversation, make sure to download the transcript for this episode so you can read along to check your understanding. The transcript also has notes about the language we use in the conversation, including vocabulary explanations and example sentences.
You can find the transcript at

Until next time, have fun practicing your English! If you have questions or suggestions about what you would like to hear in these podcasts, I’d love to hear them. You can find all the ways to get in touch with me at Bye for now!

Download the transcript for the bonus vocabulary lesson.

041 – Make the most of your motivation – a conversation with BJ Fogg (part 1 of 2)


Hi English learners! Lori here, your teacher from You are in for a treat with this episode of Real English Conversations. It’s a really special episode, and I’m so happy to be sharing it with you.

A while back I had the huge honor of having a conversation with one of my own personal heroes, Dr. BJ Fogg. BJ is the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. Put simply, he’s a scientist who spends a lot of time studying how to help people create desirable habits and getting those habits to stick. The concept of motivation plays an important role in BJ’s work. I think most people would agree that motivation is incredibly important for successful language learning, maybe even the most important thing. When you’re highly motivated, it’s easy. But when your motivation is low, it’s not so easy.

BJ has lots of practical advice about how you can make most of your motivation, no matter if it’s high or low. His way of thinking about motivation as a wave blew my mind when I first came across it. The motivation wave can easily be applied to language learning, so I am super excited to share it with you.

As always, you can find the full transcript of this conversation, including a bonus vocabulary lesson at

OK, you’re about to hear part one of the conversation. I’ll pop in again at the end to give you four things you can do to get the most benefit from this episode.

Are you ready? Let’s go!

Conversation transcript
Lori: Can– can people depend on motivation when they’re trying to learn things and do things that are difficult?

BJ: Well, in order to do anything difficult, you have to have motivation or you won’t do them. So either, if it’s…if the behavior or task is difficult, you’ve got to find some way to summon up some motivation; or if you make the task simpler, you won’t need so much motivation. So you basically have two options: boost your motivation or make the task easier to do.

Lori: Okay yeah, that– that makes a lot of sense. And I— I noticed in your video, you said that…people often, like teachers or people trying to initiate behavior change or help people change their behavior, that, you don’t like to hear them talking about, “motivating behavior change,” you prefer the term “facilitating” behavior change. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

BJ: Yeah. In English, there’s a common phrase that people use when they talk about behavior change, “We need to motivate behavior change.” And yes, you could motivate behavior change but there’s other ways to get behavior to happen. And if you’re looking at long-term behaviors or getting people to create habits, focusing on motivation is the wrong focus. You really need to look at, how do we make the behavior easy to do? And also, it’s related to the habits — how do we make the behavior rewarding or emotionally satisfying? And so, the thing that I’m worried about is by using that phrase, “motivate behavior change,” people are really limiting themselves in how they think about the different ways to design for behavior change.

Lori: It’s interesting to me, coming from, you know, having a background as a teacher. I can remember from my initial teacher training, we were often…it was either implied or— or sometimes even overtly stated that the idea was, “You have to motivate your students. You have to do things to keep their motivation up.” And— and of course, you know, [as a teacher] you want to be motivating and inspiring to people. But when I saw your video, your presentation about the motivation wave, it’s kind of like, a little bell went off that– you know, that it makes so much sense. Could you just explain just the basic, basic idea about the motivation wave — talking about the peaks and valleys, and difficult and hard?

BJ: Everyone, I think, has experienced this phenomenon in their life where they get excited about doing some behavior or some set of behaviors like, getting healthier or reducing stress. Now that excitement, as it goes up, I decided to call that, a “motivation wave” because it will go up but it will also come back down. So, it’s not a constant thing. And what the motivation wave allows you to do, when the motivation wave is high — you can do hard things, you can spend lots of time, you can put in a lot of effort, you can persist through hardship if your motivation is high. And as your motivation comes down, you can’t do the hard things anymore, you only can do simple things. And so the key to understand…there’s a few keys: Number one, that motivation won’t always be high. That goes up and down. And then two, when motivation is high, that’s the right time to get yourself or other people to do hard things. And when motivation is low, you can’t do hard things; what you can do are simple things. And so designing — if you’re trying to get yourself to study more or exercise more or what have you and your motivation’s really low, then you should take, let’s say, the study task, and break it down to just three minutes and say, Continue reading…