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Silly question, not sure if this is the appropriate forum to voice this in, but here it goes. I've noticed over much of my life that between exposure to my peers, television, and internet, I've become quite good at being able to toss together a half-decent insult. However, when it comes time for me to compliment someone, I am for a lack of words...usually limited to something in the single adjective category.

Now, when you're trying to praise someone for a job well done, or tell your girlfriend that she really is something special to you, this experience can be quite trying, and it tends to come off rather badly. So, might I implore of you linguists which books I should be reading that might help me in this area? Perhaps something you read, that contains some phrases you felt embodied the meaning of the kindness you felt? Do you understand what I mean?

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4 Answers

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Read some self-help books dealing with self-esteem. The types of phrases contained within which readers are encouraged to use on themselves could be adapted for your requirements.

Your honesty about this challenging aspect of relationships is refreshing, by the way.

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That last line is a sincere compliment. from your few examples the people you wish to compliment are people in your life, not strangers. If the latter, single word compliments would suffice. But a compliment can act to deepen a relationship (with a special person, an employee, or a coworker). Even if a single word compliment felt sincere, it might come across as insincere to these people. So to your girlfriend who cooked a special meal, "Delicious" might well be the minimum. Try, "Your culinary skills are wonderful! This is delicious!". You want to acknowledge the act AND build up the person. –  Shane Apr 13 '13 at 2:43
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I'm not sure whether it will be construed as off-topic either, 978, but it's something I have often struggled with too, and I'm pretty sure we're not in a small minority.

I'd say that the two things to avoid like the plague are:

(1) Sounding sarcastic. "Oh, well done!" is used antiphrastically so often that one has to snap to it to recognise the straight sense. It is often better with close friends to use irony deliberately: "100% ? Oh well, better luck next time!" But this needs real care and judgement - I guess we've all got this embarrassingly wrong on occasion.

(2) Sounding insincere, perfunctory, or (worse) patronising. This is perhaps harder to get past. Again, humour - light irony - can be a help, but has to be watched with extreme care. A technique is to be mildly self-deprecating: That's a great piece, but I could have finished it in twice the time." Only the 'proverbial nice person' or those in an even higher category seem able to get away with a straight "Oh, well done, Miss Granger!" / "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

But don't knock single adjectives / exclamations. And the more 'rarefied', probably the more acceptable - "Good" sounds rather cheesy, "Nice" better if a bit affected, and 'Wow' pretty genuine. "Not half bad" usually has people examining their own linguistic ability rather than the speaker's meaning.

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I'm not sure if this is off-topic either, but as it's in a worthy cause, here goes.

Sincerity is the key. There are so many different contexts where you can pay a compliment (to a superior/inferior, to close family or distant acquaintances) that it's not possible to give a single answer, but you have to use words you are comfortable with. Don't say "I greatly admire the insight and perseverance you have shown in the work you have produced here" if your normal mode of speech is "Wow, like, that's really cool", and vice versa.

user978, you say you're often limited to a single adjective - what's wrong with that, if it's sincere? "Cool" and an approving nod can go a long way.

You also say you're good at insults - try turning the insult on yourself, to contrast with the other person ("It would have taken me hours to do that / I'm such a _, I never thought of doing it that way")

If you genuinely admire or appreciate something it shouldn't be too difficult to express it. It becomes more difficult when you DON'T admire something but you want to give encouragement. In these case you admire/appreciate the effort rather than the end result.

For example, a child presents a squiggly drawing and tells you it's a horse. Of course it looks nothing like a horse, but it's easy to encourage the child with a few positive words.

It's harder with adults, eg if your girlfriend cooks a meal which is a disaster. Don't lie and say "Mmm delicious". Acknowledge the disappointment, appreciate the effort, in whatever words you're comfortable with.

Ultimately, actions can speak louder than words (definitely off-topic for a language site). If you think your girlfriend's really special she'll know it by how you behave, not any clumsy compliments. Buy your dad a beer and your mum some flowers.

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Indeed. I was just hoping to find a book or set of books that might help preload those kinds of words into my mind... –  user978122 Apr 6 '13 at 5:12
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Rather than reading books, you should be listening to how other people say the kinds of things you want to say and then looking at and listening to the reactions of those they've said it to.

My 16-year-old just told me that he appreciated it very much when, after doing well on a test or quarterly high school test grades, I said something as simple as "That's very good!" I always tell my wife that I think she's beautiful and smart and a wonderful person. I don't vary the terms to sound clever or artsy or romantic. I'm just expressing what I really feel.

As Edwin Ashworth points out, however, you must be sincere and not perfunctory in your praise. And they shouldn't be merely flattery. Sounding insincere is worse than saying nothing at all.

There are standard phrases that work: Terrific! and That's {great/wonderful/beautiful}! They can't be misconstrued if you really mean it.

Many people don't like to hear praise or compliments, so use them sparingly. Personally, I hate it when someone tells me how great I look when I put on a dress shirt or get a haircut. I know they mean it, but the implication is that I looked grungy or otherwise awful before condescending to clean up my fashion act. I have no ideas about fashion other than that I like what I like (true about everything else too) and don't care what others think about how I should dress or groom myself.

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