Category Archives: communication

It Ain’t Pretty, and It Certainly Ain’t Good

Pretty. Good.

Two perfectly fine words, yes? Sure they are, if they’re hanging out at the same party or stuck beside each other in traffic. But should those two words hook up, or say, carpool, then those two words ain’t fine at all, no sir. Put those two words together and you have a harbinger of doom. Let me explain.

The phrase ‘pretty good’ has two meanings. Adjectival. One indicates that the thing being described is acceptable, admirable, close to good. The other indicates that the thing being described is unacceptable, subpar, and no good.

“Pretty good.” The cavernous dichotomy of meaning tied to this two-word phrase is highly problematic. The meaning of the received message depends greatly on the body language and intonation of the communicator.

For example: you are out with a friend and you want to tell her that you think Pizza Hut’s new Stuffed Pretzel Crust is to your liking. You’d smile, turn your face a few degrees to one side and nod. “It’s pretty good.” However, if you think the pizza tastes like rusty nails covered in ketchup but observe that your friend is loving every bite, your response to the question “What do you think?” would be to cock your head slightly to the one side while shrugging your shoulders and offering a politically correct half smile. “It’s pretty good.” See the difference? Same words. The entire message depends on body language. This is why talking to people face to face is ideal.

Another tool in relaying the intended meaning of ‘pretty good’ is tone. Intonation. The way words are pronounced is a powerful indicator of their meaning. “Pretty good”, with a short ‘pretty’ and a drawn out, warm ‘good’, tells your listener that the thing at hand is satisfactory, pleasing. “Pretty good”, said with ‘pretty’ and ‘good’ being of the same length but with a drop in tone that ends in flat-lined silence means that the thing could be, in a pinch, somewhat satisfactory. Try it. Go ahead. Say “pretty good,” and then say “pretty good.” Hear the difference? And that’s just the tone of your voice. This is why talking to people on the phone is only quasi-ideal.

But what if there is no opportunity for body language nor tone? Let’s say your communication is limited to the written word. Now what? You can write paragraphs of exposition, you can state your case clearly and cite examples, but at some point, you’re doomed to use the words “pretty good.” And then, how the reader interprets your meaning is entirely out of your control. Two perfectly innocuous words, put together, could imply only one of two things. It could be “it’s not too shabby” or it could be “it sucks.” This isn’t a big deal if you’re telling a friend about pizza, but it is utterly disastrous if you’re reporting third quarter performance to the board of directors. This is why email totally blows.  jenny phone


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