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This doesn't sound quite right to me, but I can't explain why. I can understand an extreme sense of mediocrity one can get from something but does that justify the usage of "extreme" with "mediocre"?

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Get two other people and play the following game. Everyone writes down a number between one and a million. The person with the number in the middle wins. Play this game, let's say a thousand times. The person with the middle number of wins is the champion. They are an extremely mediocre number namer. Or are they? Isn't the person who got the most numbers in the middle the most extremely mediocre? This seems to be a paradox. Who is really the most mediocre here? –  Eric Lippert Feb 3 at 16:39
    
I am fond of the phrase aggressively mediocre –  smcg Feb 3 at 18:04
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It's a bit like "extraordinarily unremarkable". –  Jaydles Feb 3 at 21:05

7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Something can be 'very mediocre', 'completely mediocre', etc.

If it's 'extremely mediocre' though, you're crossing the line into parody. It can be used as a humorous hyperbole, the same as "fantastically bland" or "Totally averagest of them all". It makes for a very poor expression in serious contexts though.

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When we bought this house the appraiser's written report summed up the landscaping as "extremely average". This was not a compliment. Neglected would have been a far better word but appraisers rarely criticize I guess. –  Kate Gregory Feb 3 at 15:50
    
@KateGregory: Well, I guess they are the type of people to call cereal with milk "moderately gourmet". –  SF. Feb 3 at 16:09

If you approach it purely semantically, mediocre, middle-of-the-road, average, normal, etc. seem to be absolutes that can not have comparatives or superlatives.

The same happens with absolute superlatives like perfect.

It is semantically wrong to state (although admittedly most speakers have no problem with it at all):

Solution A is more perfect than solution B.

( http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/perfect Its meaning is "done", "finished" originally, and as in "practice makes perfect", it indicates that it as the absolute done versus not done. Also grammatically, a perfect tense indicates something that is finished, not something that is in some state of getting finished eventually)

However, if you want to indicate that something really has nothing to distinguish it from the average, that it is actually nearly invisible, you can express that by qualifying how average it is: "his appearance was so average as to become almost invisible".

By doing this, you do actually modify the "neutral" average in a negative way (that is, I have never seen it with positive connotations.)

Mediocre, although as such neutral, already has negative connotations. You can reinforce those connotations by indicating that the mediocrity in this case actually has a stronger effect than you would normally expect of mediocrity by using extremely mediocre.

Another example might be neutrality. If a country is neutral in a conflict, that is normally an absolute, you are neutral or you are not. One could however, comment on Swiss's historical neutrality by calling them "extremely neutral".

In the same way, normally one is either pregnant or not, This is also an absolute. I have heard people describe a woman in her last weeks as being "extremely pregnant" though.

So, even though we can normally not compare absolutes like perfect, mediocre, average, pregnant or neutral, it is acceptable_ to do so in order to convey a related, but more detailed meaning of the absolute. Always be aware that the meaning will usually change:

Extremely average (so average as to become negative).

Extremely pregnant (the pregnancy won't last much longer).

Extremely neutral (probably indicates the speaker does not regard it as real neutrality anymore).

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Can you source the claim that perfect is a superlative in terms of grammar? If so, what it is the superlative form of? Maybe, it is just my discipline but a more perfect solution makes sense if perfect is understood to apply only to (a) solutions that succeed and (b) to be the solution that succeeds in the most elegant way and/or while addressing the most cases and exceptions. So for instance, contemporary equations describing the motion of the planets are more perfect than Kepler's. –  virmaior Feb 3 at 8:44
    
See for instance the first line of the US Constitution: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union... –  virmaior Feb 3 at 8:57
    
It is common enough to say "more perfect", and I should not call it "wrong" without acknowledging its widespread use. I added a little bit to my answer, but maybe its a good subject for a new question :) –  oerkelens Feb 3 at 8:57
    
The terminology used at the EnglishClub (below) seems less controversial. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 3 at 21:15

EnglishClub has a good article on gradable and non-gradable adjectives, containing:

Some qualities can vary in intensity or grade (for example: rather hot, hot, very hot; hot, hotter, the hottest).

The adjective hot is gradable.

Other qualities cannot vary in intensity or grade because they are:

extremes (for example: freezing)

absolutes (for example: dead); – or

classifying (for example: nuclear)

('Almost' etc may be used with the first two categories; freezing point can be approached on a temperature scale, but the approach to death is harder to measure accurately!)

I wouldn't include 'mediocre' in the 'extreme' category! One could easily argue that it can't sensibly be graded. However, usage often doesn't follow logic. 'Extremely mediocre' sounds a crazy juxtaposition, as SF says; 'very mediocre' doesn't sound as wacky but would probably be used to mean 'way below average' rather than 'very close to the mean'.

Even with obviously extreme adjectives, illogical-looking grading is sometimes used to save words:

This bucket is very full (meaning This bucket is very nearly full).

'[M]ore perfect' in the US constitution is a similar ellipsis from 'more nearly perfect'.

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The bandleader Lawrence Welk would often commend a performance as "Very excellent!". My parents would use this as a 'teachable moment' (-: –  Jim Mack Feb 3 at 16:37
    
She isn't only merely dead / She's really most sincerely dead — "Ding-Dong The Witch is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz (film). –  Robusto Feb 4 at 3:00
    
I'm detecting a certain register here. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 4 at 8:15

I've had wine that was extremely mediocre. About the only thing you could note on its tasting notes was "tastes a bit like wine". There was a water-like quality to most of the palate, though not with the weakness that watery would imply.

There was nothing bad about it; no throat-scratching tannins, or bitterness. There was nothing unpleasant to the after-taste, because it didn't have the length to have any after-taste at all.

Indeed, it would almost have been better if there was something bad about it, because then at least there'd have been something of interest in the bottle.

In all, it was remarkable just how extremely mediocre it was. My father-in-law and I drank our way through quite a bit of it struggling to find something to say about it before we saw sense and opened something worth drinking.

So yeah, something can be extremely mediocre, (and quite expensive too, not that that's relevant).

The problem is, I don't think I'd have managed to convey that this wine was extremely mediocre just by calling it "extremely mediocre"; that we can find a way in which a phrase is valid doesn't necessarily make it good or useful.

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I believe the fact that the wine was expensive made its mediocrity that more exceptional, and led both of you to surmise it was extremely mediocre. If the wine had come out if a carton, it would have been drunk in five minutes and forgotten (or used for cooking) but instead it was given a second, and a third chance in the hope that the first sip was a judgement of error. Likewise, and ironically, you're more inclined to remember a mediocre film if the cast and director were trumpeted by the press and publicity beforehand. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 4 at 7:08
    
@Mari-LouA no, learning that it was expensive afterwards was an insult added to injury. –  Jon Hanna Feb 4 at 9:50
    
I only go to see films I've seen already. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 4 at 20:32

Of course you can have degrees of mediocre.

Simple mediocrity is meh.

But when someone is really mediocre, he can be described as the height of mediocrity.

And when he is so middling that he is the standard bearer, he can be the epitome of mediocrity.

And when he is the quintessential of the undistinguished, one could say

When you look up mediocre in the dictionary, there's his picture!

(But no one will recognize him because he has one of those forgettable faces.)

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'Mediocre' in the literal sense means 'in the middle', which is by definition as far from the extremes as you possibly can. In this sense 'extremely mediocre' would be a contradiction in terms.

However, if you take 'mediocre' to have a condescending meaning, which it often has, then 'extremely mediocre' would be an understatement of saying 'very very bad.' Especially in British English, this type of sarcasm works very well.

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Extremely mediocre - Its adding a Degree to the Quality.

To assert a "Mediocre Quality",if we want to be more vocal and critical, it fits well - The extremely Mediocre performance of the football team....... I had wine that was extremely Mediocre...

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