The Grammarphobia Blog

A pretty little girl

Q: Your post about the use of “pretty” to mean “rather” got me wondering about a sentence like this: “She is a pretty little girl.” Not knowing her, how am I to tell if she’s rather little or pretty and little? Would a comma after “pretty” indicate that it’s an adjective, not an adverb?

A: As we mentioned in that post, “pretty” has been used as an adjective in the sense of “attractive” since the 1400s and as an adverb meaning “rather” since the 1500s.

Because it has these dual uses, “pretty” can be ambiguous. A phrase like “a pretty little girl” most likely means a girl who’s both pretty and little. But in a discussion of children’s growth rates, it could mean a girl who’s pretty little.

In other words, how are we to know whether “pretty” is an adjective (helping to modify “girl”) or an adverb (modifying “little”)? The answer is that without additional context, there’s no way to know for sure.

And a comma won’t help. This is because a comma would not normally be inserted between “pretty” and “little” to show that both were meant as adjectives. Here’s why.

Certain classes of adjectives always occur in a certain order when they’re used together in a series, and with no commas separating them. And “pretty little girl” is a good example.

We wrote in 2010 about the order of adjectives in a series, and again in 2017 about strings of adjectives that need no commas.

Our advice about commas: if it’s not idiomatic to use “and” to separate adjectives in a series (as in “a pretty brick house”), don’t use commas either.

But if it’s reasonable to use “and” between adjectives, then a comma is appropriate: Examples: “a pretty, well-mannered girl,” “a pretty, graceful girl,” “a pretty, intelligent girl.”

Often, idiomatic usage (or your ear) can tell you how “pretty” is being used.

In the case of “a pretty little girl,” we believe that most people would interpret both modifiers as adjectives, unless there was some reason to think otherwise. When “pretty” and “little” occur together before a noun, this is usually the case.

But when “pretty” appears with “big,” “good,” and some other modifiers, it’s most often an adverb: “a pretty big house,” “in pretty good company,” “a pretty long journey,” “a pretty bad location,” “a pretty loud noise.” Nobody misunderstands combinations like those.

The upshot? If there’s a chance of misunderstanding, a writer should avoid using “pretty” as an adverb before an already modified noun. A less ambiguous word—“rather,” “quite,” “very,” “somewhat,” “awfully”—would work better.

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