Vary and Very

Commonly Confused Words

vary and very
The meanings of colors vary in different cultures. (Thomas Roetting/LOOK-foto/Getty Images)

The words vary and very are homophones: they sound alike but their meanings are different.

Definitions

The verb vary means to differ, modify, diversify, or deviate. Similarly, vary means to make changes (to something) so that it's not always the same.

Both an adjective and an adverbvery is an emphatic word that means truly, absolutely, or extremely. Very also means actual, exact, or precise. 

See the examples and usage notes below.

Also see the article Totally Overworked Words

Examples

  • "The times people work, take breaks, and eat lunch vary around the world."
    (Jeanette S. Martin and Lillian H. Chaney, Global Business Etiquette, 2nd ed. Praeger, 2012)
     
  • "Something in his head is driving him to do the same as he did before, but he knows, because he's not stupid, that he needs to vary his routine or his methods."
    (Peter James, Dead Like You. Minotaur Books, 2010)

     
  • "In the summer it would be very hot and his body would thirst for the sweet fluids of melons, and he would long for the shade of thick leaves and the coolness of a quiet stream, but always he would be in the city, shouting."
    (William Saroyan, "Resurrection of a Life." Story, 1935)
     
  • "The crowds have left the gaming tables. One lonely figure remains, his house, his car, his yacht, his jewels, his very life hinging on the last turn of the cards.”
    (John Updike, "Solitaire." Museums and Women. Knopf, 1972)
     
  • "Professor L's grades do vary, but they don't vary very much. They are all within a fairly tight range."
    (Thomas J. Linneman, Social Statistics. Taylor & Francis, 2011)
     

Usage Notes

  • "Overworked for countless years, [the intensive very] has so lost force that it can perversely weaken the adjective or adverb its user hopes to make stronger. Those who respect its condition and its need of rest learn to call on it rarely--and then for an emphasis little more than polite.

    "Very might regain some strength if writers were taught that it goes with ordinary adjectives (tall, sorry, lazy) but not with adjectives formed on verbs (disappointed, delighted, neglected); careful writers use much with these."
    (Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage, rev. by Erik Wensburg. Hill and Wang, 1998)
     
  • "The adverb really is derived from the adjective real. It means 'actually or truly' but is frequently used in place of the adverb very
    - I am really glad you made it. (acceptable)
    - The pie smells really good. (acceptable)
    While this usage is not incorrect, the adverbs very and really have subtle differences in meaning that are worthy of note. Very involves an extreme, while really involves truth. They are similar but not the same."
     (Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas, The Grammar Bible. Owl Book, 2004)


Practice

(a) Lord Lucan has been gone for a _____ long time.

(b) "She would _____ her steps, sometimes walking sedately, sometimes skipping, sometimes hopping and humming, one plump hand always clutching the handkerchief that contained the lump of ice."
(Tennessee Williams, "Three Players." Hard Candy: A Book of Stories. New Directions, 1954)

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

Answers to Practice Exercises: Vary and Very

(a) Lord Lucan has been gone for a very long time.

(b) "She would vary her steps, sometimes walking sedately, sometimes skipping, sometimes hopping and humming, one plump hand always clutching the handkerchief that contained the lump of ice."
(Tennessee Williams, "Three Players." Hard Candy: A Book of Stories. New Directions, 1954)

 

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words