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In A Comprehensive Grammar of The English Language, 7.77 comparison of good, well and ill, it says:

He is better. is ambiguous between:

(a) He is well again.

(b) He is less ill.

I can only understand the (b) meaning. When a person is ill, and now his health state is improved, we say He is better., which means He is less ill.

What about the (a) meaning?

  • Thanks to all of you very much. I am not a native speaker but a English learner. This is my first post here. I just think to myself that better only means the health state is, to a certain degree, improved, because better is the comparative form of well. Now, I have read your answers. It it true from the dictionary that better can mean fully recoverd. better from oxford dictionary – kevin May 5 at 11:16
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Oxford Dictionaries defines this sense of better as partly or fully recovered from illness, injury, or mental stress.

So if you say that someone has got better from an illness, it usually means that they have fully recovered. But if you say that a sick person is feeling better today, they are probably still unwell but improving.

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  • Thanks for your reply. – kevin May 5 at 11:20
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I am not sure of the community's preferred approach here. I love the basic thrust of Michael D's answer, but dislike the attempted and unwarranted assumption of numerical quantification: English has ways to describe differences in degree that make no claims to numeration. In fact, numerical quantification in such circumstances is often purely metaphorical. Moreover "not as worse" is itself a grammatical error.

I do not want to downvote Michael's post because the basic thrust is spot on. I do not want to make massive edits to someone else's post. Thus, I have decided to post my own answer, admittedly modeled on his answer. I shall delete my answer if Michael amends his to address these concerns.

My answer.

He is well again

means he has completely recovered.

He is less ill

means he has recovered only in part but is completely silent on degree.

He is better

means he has recovered but is completely silent on whether recovery is partial or complete.

In practice, if "He is better" is not further qualified, it may be inferred, perhaps incorrectly, that recovery is complete. But the bare statement does not formally imply that conclusion.

Also in practice, if "He is less ill" is not further qualified, it may be inferred, perhaps incorrectly, that recovery is far from complete. But the bare statement does not formally imply that conclusion.

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  • Thanks, @Jeff Morrow – kevin May 5 at 11:27
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He is well again

implies he has completely recovered.

He is less ill

implies he has partially recovered albeit relatively not completely. It is unclear on the level of recovery from complete illness.

He is better

implies he has partially recovered, but still not completely. It is unclear on the level of recovery from complete recovery.

It could arguably be said that both "he is less ill" and "he is better" are ambiguous.

  • "He is better" could wrongfully lean towards "complete recovery" in the absence of further details.
  • "He is less ill" could wrongfully emphasis "far from recovery" in the absence of further details.

Edit: Remove unwarrented numerical quantification.

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    Please see my answer. (I did not downvote your answer, but my answer may explain why it has been downvoted by others.) – Jeff Morrow May 4 at 12:29
  • Thanks, @Michael D. – kevin May 5 at 11:20
  • @JeffMorrow: Thanks for the help and advice. I've amended the answer. I understood the risk of branching to a new community. It might take a while to get used to the established unwritten collective mindset and rules of the community. It's refreshing to see the support. Appreciate it. – Michael D May 5 at 11:31
  • I have upvoted. – Jeff Morrow May 5 at 21:32

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