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The Cambridge Dictionary and the Free Dictionary mention that "par for the course" is to be used with negative events. Is it only used for negative events? If I did something good, for example, could I say it is "par for the course"?

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  • 2
    The dictionaries are wrong. It can be and is used with neutral, "ordinary" events. It can be used with positive events. It is usually used somewhat sardonically - but that applies to almost every utterance in present-day English.
    – Fattie
    Nov 27 '21 at 15:44
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The expression "par for the course" roughly means, "this is normal, so don't be impressed or surprised". It downplays the importance of one particular incident given the fuller context. This means it can be used with negative or positive expressions. It's important to note that it doesn't make sense with neutral expressions. In this sentence, for example, the expression is meaningless:

I just finished my morning tea, but that's par for the course.

Nobody is impressed or surprised that I drank tea this morning because I drink tea every morning, but downplaying it suggests that you should be initially impressed or surprised.

From one of the other answers:

I aced the test, but for me that's par for the course.

Here, the expression is of something good, my success on the test, but the connotation of "par for the course" is that this success is not significant, downplaying it.

It means the same thing when used with a negative expression:

My boss took credit for the work I did on that project, but that's par for the course with her.

Here, the direct meaning is that my boss not acknowledging my work is normal, nothing to be surprised about, downplayed.

Now, the negative aspect that those dictionaries refer to is the implied meaning when "par for the course" is used with negative expressions. In the example about my boss, the subtext is, "I'm complaining about what a terrible boss I have. Not only did she take credit for my work on this project, but this is normal", which of course, is much worse. When used this way, it's very negative.

Even when used with positive-looking expressions, it can have a negative connotation. Another example from the other answers:

Joe won all his tennis matches on Saturday, but that's par for the course for him.

The direct meaning is, "It's not surprising that Joe won all his matches because he always does." Depending on the context and the speaker's tone of voice, there might also be an inferred subtext of, "I'm complaining that he always wins."

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  • The opening two sentences are not bad. However, "It's important to note that it doesn't make sense with neutral expressions. In this sentence, for example, the expression is meaningless: ... " is non-sense. As always, Context is King. Maybe the "morning tea" statement is meant as a contrast to what was expected. OR, it's a just a simple description of a mundane fact. Either way, neither is meaningless. Nov 26 '21 at 18:32
  • Compare "It's 7am and you are already finished with your morning tea?!" with "It's 11am and you are just now finishing your morning tea?!". In both cases, "par for the course" establishes that the drinker always finishes their morning tea around that time, regardless of when their friend expects morning tea to be finished by.
    – chepner
    Nov 26 '21 at 18:49
  • @chepner Right. Either of those sentences might qualify as something surprising because it's so early/late in the day.
    – gotube
    Nov 27 '21 at 5:32
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Although 'par for the course' is often used with a negative implication (e.g. 'we can't expect anything better'), it is not exclusively negative. It can simply mean 'normal or usual', e.g. 'Joe won all his tennis matches on Saturday, but that's par for the course for him', 'Jimmy cooked a gourmet meal for his friends that rivalled anything that an expensive restaurant could provide, but that's par for the course with him'

Lexico (Oxford Dictionaries) gives a positive example in its definition:

par for the course

What is normal or expected in any given circumstances.

‘looking gorgeous is par for the course with her’

Par for the course (Lexico)

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It's much more commonly used with negative occurrences. However, a few dictionaries support the use of par for the course with more positive things to express being unimpressed, for example Longman:

Such service companies want your agency's business and lavish lunches and gifts are par for the course.

That said, when applied to something good you did you should use it cautiously - it can sound rather boastful:

I aced the test, but for me that's par for the course. (I was very sure I'll ace the test and I'm bragging that it's nothing special for me)

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No, of course not.

What makes you think "par for the course" has mainly… even, any… negative meaning?

I happen to have heard that expression many hundreds of times, and never once noticed any suggestion of negativity…

"Average" yes.

"Average or (a bit) above" perhaps.

"Below average" pretty-much never.

Specifically, "par for the course" clearly does mean "on average."

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  • Have you read the entire question?
    – Sidney
    Dec 21 '21 at 1:40
  • @Sidney Yes, assuming the entire Question is the one, three-line sentence at the top here… Why? I suggest "Par for the course" is negative largely as in Maciej Stachowski's example, which is to say not very. Dec 22 '21 at 9:58
  • I'm asking because I mentioned two well-known dictionaries that state that the term is used only negatively, and you asked what made me think this.
    – Sidney
    Dec 22 '21 at 17:54
  • @Sidney Sorry and you're not quoting "well-known" dictionaries. For comparison, I've heard of the Cambridge only in the last couple of years, rarely and here. Off SE, I don't recall hearing of it once. OED I've heard of repeatedly for more than 60 years… Ask both your neighbours - unless you live near Cambridge. The Free Dictionary might be well-known among those who've come across it on the Interweb but otherwise… what? I don't remember hearing the phrase used negatively outside the specific context "Oh, that's just like him…" and even that might as likely be positive. See Fattie, above. Dec 22 '21 at 18:56
  • By well-known, I wanted to mean not esoteric - it's something easy to find and appears on top on search engines.
    – Sidney
    Dec 22 '21 at 19:31

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