The Grammarphobia Blog

In pretty good company

Q: Whence comes “pretty,” the spoken dialectal equivalent to “rather,” as in, “We made it pretty far before we turned back”? Do you know if it’s common in a specific region? I live in Southern California, and I use it pretty often. I frequently hear it from others, too.

A: You’ll be surprised by our answer. The word “pretty” used in this sense isn’t dialectal, regional, or confined to speech. It’s been standard English since the 1500s.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this adverbial use of “pretty” as “to a considerable extent; fairly, moderately; rather, quite. In later use also: very.”

The earliest citation for the usage in the OED is from Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus Linguae Romanae & Britannicae (1565): “Audaculus, a pretie hardie felow: vsed in derision.”
(Shakespeare is believed to have used Cooper’s work as a reference.)

Oxford says the Cooper citation may have represented an adjectival use, but it has no doubts about its next example, from The Workes of a Young Wyt (1577), a collection of poetry by Nicholas Breton:

“Berlady tis prety good meate.” (“Berlady,” an oath or expletive, is a contraction of “by our Lady.”)

Here’s one more 16th-century example, from A Worlde of Wordes (1598), an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio: “Boccace is prettie hard, yet understood: Petrarche harder but explaned.”

The OED says the expression “pretty much” dates from 1682, and means “almost, very nearly; more or less; (also, in early use) very much, considerably.”

You didn’t ask, but the adjective “pretty” has been around since Anglo-Saxon times (spelled pæti, pætig, or prættig). In Old English, according to Oxford, it meant cunning or crafty at first, then clever, skillful, or able.

The adjective didn’t come to mean attractive until the 1400s. Here’s an example from Sir Walter Scott’s 1821 novel Kenilworth: “Having a cellar of sound liquor, a ready wit, and a pretty daughter.”

Getting back to your question, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) notes that some usage guides “complain that pretty is overworked” as an adverb and recommend restricting the usage “to informal or colloquial contexts.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s says in its usage note that “pretty” in this sense “is in wide use across the whole spectrum of English.”

“It is common in informal speech and writing,” the dictionary says, “but is neither rare nor wrong in serious discourse.”

M-W includes examples from George Bernard Shaw (“he may, if he be pretty well off or clever, qualify himself as a doctor”), Henry Steele Commager (“a return to those traditions of American foreign policy which worked pretty well for over a century”), and the Times Literary Supplement (“the arguments for buying expensive books have to be pretty cogent”).

So you’re in pretty good company.

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