Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 125: Pretty Mysterious

This week’s episode is inspired by a message from Vicki, a listener in Superior, Wisconsin. Vicki writes:

I have a question about the usage of the word pretty as in: I thought it was a pretty good idea. I see the word pretty used so often as an adjective in this manner. Is it better to say: I thought it was a very good idea?

Thanks for the question, Vicky. The Oxford Dictionary of Current English gives a second definition of pretty as an informal adverb that means, “to a certain extent; fairly.”

Along similar lines, Fowler’s Modern English Usage tells us that pretty is used “especially in colloquial contexts as an adverb meaning ‘fairly, moderately’.”

To illustrate, one often hears pretty used in contexts like these:

The performance was pretty good.
These pretzels are pretty salty.
The tickets to the gallery opening are pretty expensive.

Fowler’s also says that the word pretty can be used in a sarcastic or ironic way.

“I just spilled all the desserts!” “Oooh … pretty smooth, Cliff.”

Based on the citations in the dictionary and in Fowler's, it’s obviously accepted to use pretty in these ways.

One thing that deserves attention, however, is that both sources indicated that using pretty in the ways described is considered informal or colloquial. This is particularly important to bear in mind when writing. Specifically, if one is writing something informal or casual, using pretty to mean “moderately” is just fine.

For more formal contexts—such as a business letter, a formal report, an article or an academic paper—it may be better to use a different, more descriptive adverb to modify the adjective that follows.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage leaves us with an important note about the word pretty. The word pretty works as an adverb only in this colloquial sense, when it is modifying another adverb or adjective, as in:

Pretty good Pretty salty Pretty expensive

Fowler’s advises that the adverb, used when modifying a verb, is prettily. For example:

The Kelleys’ daughters dressed prettily for the family photo.

…as long as it’s not confused with the proper adjective use.

The girls looked pretty in the family photo.

That seems pretty thorough.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield

Music from this episode: “Royal Blue” by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra

Hiatus Announcement
And now an important message for our listeners: Grammar Grater will be taking a hiatus this winter but we’ll be back in a couple of months. We’re exploring ways to serve you better. As always, if you have questions, ideas for the show or other comments, please send them to us through the form on our Web site. Thank you!

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