This weekâ€™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, â€œto a certain extent; fairly.â€
Along similar lines, Fowlerâ€™s Modern English Usage tells us that pretty is used â€œespecially in colloquial contexts as an adverb meaning â€˜fairly, moderatelyâ€™.â€
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.
Fowlerâ€™s also says that the word pretty can be used in a sarcastic or ironic way.
â€œI just spilled all the desserts!â€
â€œOooh â€¦ pretty smooth, Cliff.â€
Based on the citations in the dictionary and in Fowlerâ€™s, itâ€™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 â€œmoderatelyâ€ is just fine.
For more formal contextsâ€”such as a business letter, a formal report, an article or an academic paperâ€”it may be better to use a different, more descriptive adverb to modify the adjective that follows.
Fowlerâ€™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:
Fowlerâ€™s advises that the adverb, used when modifying a verb, is prettily. For example:
The Kelleysâ€™ daughters dressed prettily for the family photo.
â€¦as long as itâ€™s not confused with the proper adjective use.
The girls looked pretty in the family photo.
That seems pretty thorough.
Music from this episode: â€œRoyal Blueâ€ by Henry Mancini and His Orchestra
And now an important message for our listeners: Grammar Grater will be taking a hiatus this winter but weâ€™ll be back in a couple of months. Weâ€™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!