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In expressions like J'ai faim, why is it correct to augment it by saying “J'ai très faim” instead of “J'ai beaucoup de faim”?

I mean, if the French way of saying I'm hungry is “I have hunger”, shouldn't it be embellished as “I have a lot of hunger”, rather than “I have very hunger”? That's assuming we translate très as very, which may not be entirely accurate, but is what I've always been told.

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Excellent question! I would answer you should use "Je suis affamé(e)", which means "I am starving". As it doesn't answer your question, I put that in a comment ;-). – SteeveDroz May 17 at 15:24
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Le TLF nous dit que c'est une forme impropre, mais la cite en effet.

E. − [Employé improprement dans une locution verbale formée d'un auxiliaire ou d'un verbe support (avoir, être, faire, prendre…) et d'un substantif abstrait désignant des « sensations ou des sentiments à l'état brut: faim, soif, froid, chaud, sommeil, mal, peur, envie, plaisir, honte, hâte… » (G. Moignet, op. cit., p. 154); emploi critiqué] Un jour, elle se retrouva dans son lit, bien faible, ayant très faim (A. France, Jocaste, 1879, p. 74). Il faut que nous fassions très attention, il faut que nous soyons très prudents (Guitry, Veilleur, 1911, iii, p. 19).

Et elle est si courante (à l'oral notamment, mais même à l'écrit) qu'elle ne choquera personne, hormis peut-être dans les contextes les plus formels.

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In short, it's actually an improper usage of très, but the usage is extremely common so that nobody will consider it incorrect. Funnily enough, the link doesn't say what the proper form would be. J'ai beaucoup de faim is certainly incorrect, so you'd have to use J'ai une grande faim or J'ai grand-faim (for extra pedantic points) Anyway, go eat something already. – Joubarc Apr 4 '13 at 13:18
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@Joubarc: Bloody crutial detail, isn't it rather grand'faim? – Stéphane Gimenez Apr 4 '13 at 22:31
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I thought so too, but nope. The TLFi mentions explicitely grand-faim and also says a few things about it in the ethymology section, including "Ces loc. étaient écrites, à tort, avec une apostrophe comme s'il s'agissait d'une élision." – Joubarc Apr 5 '13 at 7:00
    
And speaking of bloody details, it's crucial, not crutial ;-) (and you may want to be careful with the usage of bloody too, by the way) – Joubarc Apr 5 '13 at 7:03
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Bloody isn't really considered obscene. It's very mild. Usage tends to be even higher in Ireland (more Catholic) than the U.K. I think Stéphane's usage could be interpreted as wishing to emphasize the importance of the detail in an informal, perhaps jocular way. – Micromégas Apr 5 '13 at 16:02

For the “grammatical correctness” of the expression, the accepted answer is perfect. I could just add that, as a native educated speaker, I was really surprised recently to discover the expression to be incorrect.

If one slightly generalizes the question to “why do almost all native speakers feel this is correct ?”, I think the answer is in Rodney Ball’s excellent Colloquial French Grammar: A Practical Guide, section 3.1.3 (here “standard” is short for “standard French”, the rest is colloquial French.)

(d) Two further points of usage involving adjectives (and adverbs) should be noted. Firstly, the widespread familiar use of très with certain nouns. Expressions like j'ai très froid/très chaud are standard: froid and chaud here are direct objects of avoir, but they are adjectives even so, and can therefore be modified by the adverb très. Understandably enough, this causes très to be adjoined to nouns like faim, soif or envie in the parallel expressions j'ai très faim/très soif/très envie (standard **j'ai grand' faim/grand' soif/grande envie). A further development is the still more familiar expression faire très attention (standard faire bien attention). Such uses are much criticized by normative grammarians, who see it as a breach of grammatical protocol for an adverb to modify a noun.

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