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Does e.g. "tolerably disgusting" mean the degree of disgust involved is tolerable or intolerable? Or "tolerably vile" - does it mean the vileness involved is tolerable or intolerable?

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It simply means it is tolerable, and, it is disgusting. It's that simple. It is NOT one of those weird English things such as 'quite bad' or 'horribly good'. It is NOT one of those - it simply means the two words. (Like if I said "big red" or "cheap cheerful".) –  Joe Blow Aug 12 at 9:34

5 Answers 5

Tolerably: adv.

  • in an acceptable (but not outstanding) manner; "she plays tennis tolerably"

  • acceptably, so-so

It means to an acceptable extent. The extent to which disgust or vileness are acceptable is a matter of personal opinion.

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Tolerably disgusting means that the speaker finds it (whatever "it" is) disgusting, but can live with the level of disgust involved.

Similarly with tolerably vile: it's vile, but tolerable.

When something is "intolerably disgusting" it indicates that the speaker cannot stand the situation because of the disgust.

Generally, if something is described as tolerable, that's what it is.

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The fact that there are so few examples on the internet for either of these usages shows that you're probably better avoiding them yourself. Though not ungrammatical, they're far from idiomatic (considered normal by native speakers).

'Tolerably' is almost always used in the (downtoner) sense 'reasonably' when modifying an adverb or adjective, as CDO indicates. And you'd not say 'reasonably disgusting' very often. The word is rarely if ever used with (especially strongly) 'negative' adjectives. This is not the case for 'intolerably', as Andrew indicates.

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Yes, "tolerably disgusting" is confusing, as Edwin explains. Don't use it. Say instead "it was disgusting, but, just tolerable" (if that is what you mean). Or say "it was disgusting, but easily tolerable" (if that is what you mean). –  Joe Blow Aug 12 at 9:35
    
Eh looks plenty clear and idiomatic to me –  Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 12 at 11:35
    
@JoeBlow At least English doesn't have the problem French has with 'disgusting'. One word for 'disgusting' (dégoûtant) looks very much like a word which means delicious (dégustant). It is a classic howler for the English to get these confused and to tell the waiter that the soup was disgusting when they meant it was tasty! –  WS2 Aug 12 at 11:41
    
Lightness - I agree with you that it is used commonly. I meant, here, to express the position "Even though it is used commonly, Uncle Joe suggests, do not use it as it is confusing and 'poorly thought-out'." I appreciate that I often express the opposite position on this here forum (ie, "ok, it's illogical, but everyone says it") Regarding the inherent tension there: I offer only a shrug. WS2 -- ahhh! That explains what the hell the reactions are I get when in France :O –  Joe Blow Aug 12 at 12:12
    
I don't see how it can be claimed to be idiomatic when it (the string 'tolerably disgusting') appears in no dictionary and seems to appear in only a handful of separate examples on Google. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 12 at 18:09

I think it means 'tolerably disgusting', such as picking your nose in a side street. But if you were doing it whilst walking along Piccadilly it would doubtless be considered 'intolerably disgusting'.

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A "tolerably good meal" means that the meal was all-right, but not splendid. But you are perhaps more likely to hear it as a somewhat ironic understatement, when you really mean "a very good meal indeed". "Tolerably disgusting" is something I would only say if I am trying to be funny. The humourous tone comes from the fact that it is an oxymoron: if something is disgusting then it is by definition not tolerable.

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