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I am aware that there are plenty of threads on intensifiers(very, rather, pretty, quite, fairly, etc.), both on this site and on the web, because of their ambiguity in terms of meaning. What I have learned is that their meaning can change depending on which country you are from, which context they are used, or your intonation. So instead of comparing all intensifiers, I decided to make my question more specific. I chose to focus on the word pretty because of its "common" usage.

So as we can see, the word pretty has two meanings and unfortunately they are "pretty" opposite. My question is can you tell me, just by taking into account the example sentences below, in which sentences "pretty" means "fairly,", and in which it means "very?"

Does "Tom looks pretty tired" always mean "Tom looks a little/fairly tired" ?

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http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/pretty

  • @Araucaria and Ben Kovitz Thanks a lot.This answers is quite helpful! I mean very helpful. But I would like to ask a last thing to make sure I understood it right. 1) Because their meanings change mostly depending on intonation, the example sentences on dictionary can rewrite under different words?I mean , can we " Tom looks very tired" write as a example of the usage of "very" of pretty..Are the example just random choices? Would you find it weird if the dictionary gave an example as a meaning "fairly" like " the weather has been pretty awful " 2 ) Does the word "fairly" always weaken? – Mrt Dec 8 '14 at 10:06
  • Unfortunately, the word "pretty" is pretty ambiguous, at least in its informal sense. (Its formal sense, "moderately beautiful", is pretty clear.) You just have to infer what the speaker probably intends: to slightly weaken or slightly intensify whatever "pretty" modifies. Even the word "fairly" is fairly vague: it can also weaken or intensify. I think "pretty" can only be learned through long experience. It's pretty sloppy, casual English. Unlike the perfect present tense, "pretty" doesn't convey hidden subtlety or precision. – Ben Kovitz Oct 9 '15 at 12:59
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It depends on intonation. With a certain, emphatic intonation, Tom looks pretty tired can mean "Tom looks very tired; indeed, his level of tiredness is remarkable." With ordinary intonation, it just means "Tom is moderately tired—tired enough to matter, but his level of tiredness is not especially remarkable."

The emphatic intonation that I have in mind drags out each syllable of pretty to an equally long length, about as long as the word tired. The pitches go something like E D C, like "Three blind mice". Of course, there are many other kinds of intonations and emphasis that a person could give the words, suggesting many different kinds of tiredness, and there is no precise, standardized code. You just improvise.

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In written text it isn't easy to tell whether the intended implication of degree adverbs such as pretty or quite or rather is "very" or "a bit". It can only really be guessed from the context. However, in real speech our interpretation of these adverbs depends on the stress we use.

In examples like the Original Poster's, these adverbs are used to modify adjectives. For example:

  • pretty good
  • quite interesting
  • rather long
  • fairly thorough

These adverbs have a meaning of "X, but not very, very X".

There are two parts of this meaning that we can emphasise: the fact that something is X - or the fact that it's not very, very X.

If we stress the adverb, it emphasises that it wasn't very, very good, very interesting, very short, or very thorough:

  • It was pretty good.
  • It was quite interesting.
  • It was rather long.
  • It was fairly thorough.

However, if we stress the adjective, then it emphasises that it was, indeed, X:

  • It was pretty good.
  • It was quite interesting.
  • It was rather long.
  • It was fairly thorough.

In these examples, because we hear the adjective as stressed, our interpretation of these degree adverbs is something similar to very.

Hope this is helpful!

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I think that the real problem is that English speakers are fond of understatement.

To my mind, the literal meaning of "pretty" is "to a moderate or limited extent". When "pretty" is used to mean "very", this is understatement and must, unfortunately, be inferred from context.

Fortunately, when a speaker wants it to be clearly understood that they're being very positive, they will typically augment an understated phrase with intensifiers...

  • "He's pretty good-looking." (He is quite attractive.)
  • "He's pretty damn good-looking." (He is extremely attractive.)

...or use it to modify something that's actually a very strong statement in itself.

  • "Did you like the food?" "It was pretty good." (May mean it was just okay, or that it was very good.)
  • "Did you like the food?" "It was pretty awesome." (Definitely means it was very good.)

For comparison, here's another understated phrase, with and without this kind of augmentation.

  • "How was your trip?" "Not bad." (The trip was just okay.)
  • "How was your trip?" "Not bad at all." (The trip was good.)

My point of reference is Australian English, if it matters.


(Interestingly, note that both "pretty" and "fair" are adjectives for "attractive". I'm not sure exactly where their adverb usage came from or whether it's related, but it's something I find "pretty" interesting.)

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In AmE, pretty means to a significant degree, and fairly means to a moderate degree. Pretty and fairly are closer to each other in meaning that either is to "a little."

I doubt that those lists of words in the source you cited are intended to be understood as exact synonyms. They're probably meant to be understood as similar or related terms, as you'd find in a thesaurus.

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