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Pretty Pretty

Rudolf's comment on the word "pretty" is very impressive, suggestive and instructive to me. His explanation puts it that the word is practically used as a de-intensifier rather than an intensifier, and it can mean "worse than good" depending on the situation. Hey, is it great to learn something profound on languages that dictionaries don't tell you? My vague image of the word was that, in most cases, it falls on somewhere between "fairly" and "very."

I personally have thought "pretty" is a word that is hard to use as compared to "beautiful" and "very." Now I want to get to the heart of it, and I'm curious to know if there are regional or personal differences on the images of the word. So, please enlighten me: If you made something and someone rated it as "pretty good," how would you feel in the first place? I know, of course, the connotations it can make will be different depending on how it is said, but I'd like to know the probabilities.


in the context you mention, always negative or at least a lukewarm praise. I would be disappointed if I asked someone what they thought of a photo or post, and they replied "pretty good".

Grammars are probably better sources of information on this sort of question than dictionaries. In particular, I'd recommend Michael Swan's *Practical English Usage* because it's level-headed and undogmatic.

Swan has a short section on "fairly, quite, rather and pretty: adverbs of degree" (205 - 206). He orders them from lowest degree to highest degree: fairly "does not suggest a very high degree"; quite "suggests a higher degree than *fairly*"; rather is "stronger than *quite*"; pretty is "similar to *rather*, but only modifies adjectives and adverbs". My gut feeling confirms this order.

Still, Swan doesn't say if any of these adverbs actually cross the threshold of the unmodified thing and modify its degree upward. He only offers this much: "if you say that somebody is *fairly nice* or *fairly clever*, for example, he or she will not be very pleased". This clearly suggests that *fairly* lowers or "de-intensifies" the degree. However, I don't believe that any of the other adverbs usually heighten the degree of the unmodified element, unless, as I pointed out earlier, there is an understatement involved.

I think it's mainly understatement and irony that make this scale of degrees a rather tricky thing. Take "less than perfect" as an example. If you look at this phrase with a naive eye that's untroubled by any knowledge of actual usage, you'd say, well "less" is a little below the full degree, so "less than perfect" must mean something between "very good" and "perfect". Dead wrong. "Less than perfect" can, as the case may be, even suggest "pretty bad" if the speaker chooses to use a polite understatement instead of a blunt verdict.

Thanks, Kurt. Actually, I was once told so by an American guy many years ago, and I felt a little offended not because I got the exact feel of the word, but because his attitude always looked arrogant.

Rudolf, yes, I have the book. Even those books don't always satisfy certain Japanese learners of English like me. So, I appreciate your vivid explanation.