Which of these two phrases has more negative undertone?

"The interview I had was not very good"


"The interview I had was not good"

  • The second is more negative. While technically not 100% correct, I've heard that phrased used often enough that it doesn't sound out of place. Jun 17, 2015 at 18:49
  • I think it's really a matter of opinion. I would say they sound approximately equally negative.
    – Daniel
    Jun 17, 2015 at 19:23

3 Answers 3


I'm assuming that your question applies not only to your interview example, but would extend to other usages as well, such as:

(A) "That dress is not very pretty." vs. (B) "That dress is not pretty."

(A) "Our dog is not very friendly." vs. (B) "Our dog is not friendly."

(A) "Our neighbor is not very rich." vs. (B) "Our neighbor is not rich."

(A) "The kitchen is not very clean right now." vs. (B) "The kitchen is not clean right now."

If my hunch is right, you're asking: Which of those statements would be more appropriate for the very ugly dress, the very mean dog, the very poor neighbor, and the very filthy kitchen, and which would be more appropriate for the dress that is just a little bit ugly, the dog that growls just a little bit, the neighbor who isn't too poor, and the kitchen that just needs a quick tidying up.

Most of the time, the answer would be (B). Option (A) expresses a sentiment that is not quite as strong, which might be strange, considering how the word very is part of the sentence. But when the word "not" is used, very can tone down the negative undertones.

So, for example:

A very ugly dress is uglier than an ugly dress, and a very rich neighbor is wealthier than a rich neighbor.

However, if I say:

That's not a very pretty dress.

it's not quite as negative as saying:

That's not a pretty dress.

because a dress that's not very pretty can still be a little bit pretty.

Generally speaking, I'd rank the expressions in this order, from most positive at the top to most negative at the bottom:

The dress is:       The student is:      The kitchen is:      The dog is:
very pretty         very happy           very clean           very friendly
pretty              happy                clean                friendly
not very pretty     not very happy       not very clean       not very friendly
not too ugly        not too unhappy      not too dirty        not too friendly
not pretty          not happy            not clean            not friendly
ugly                unhappy              dirty                mean
very ugly           very unhappy         very dirty           very mean
  • 1
    In some cases you can add "at all", for example "not pretty at all", which I would put slightly below "ugly".
    – gnasher729
    Jun 18, 2015 at 22:38

Use well instead of good.

  1. The interview I had didn't go very well
  2. The interview I had didn't go well

Number 2 sounds more negative than number 1.

Grammatically, if the interview didn't go very well then it could have gone slightly well. In actual everyday speech, if you say it didn't go very well then you're implying that it went far worse than a little bit well.

But if you say the interview didn't go well at all, then you're more strongly suggesting that it went terrible. Because (grammatically speaking) you're saying that there is no chance that it went even a little bit well.

Both phrases are understatements. "He is not a very nice man" is a bigger understatement than "he is not a nice man". The more of an understatement a phrase is, the less negative it sounds.

  • I need understand the original phrases undertone.
    – Eugene
    Jun 17, 2015 at 10:28
  • Both phrases are understatements. "He is not a very nice man" is a bigger understatement than "he is not a nice man". The more of an understatement a phrase is, the less negative it sounds.
    – Mark
    Jun 17, 2015 at 10:33
  • 1
    @Mark - Your comment here should be folded into your answer, as that helps answer the crux of the question.
    – J.R.
    Jun 17, 2015 at 18:47

The "not" acts as a modifier of the adverb "very". So "not very good" means "quite good".

A picture to illustrate how I understand "not very good" compared to "not good" and "not bad"

 very bad     bad      neutral    okay       good     very good
    [.......not good.......]
                     [......not very good......]
                                 [.......not bad.....]

Context matters, and these terms are sometimes used ironically. But "not very good" tends not to mean "very bad". It doesn't mean "very not-got" (which would be incorrect English).

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