English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm aware that when we say things like:

It's a cheap cell phone.

That's a cheapo, throw it out.

It does mean something is clearly of bad quality. But how about when comparing things? for example:

Those shoes are cheaper than these.

That hotel is cheaper than this one.

Does it give the impression of lower quality, too? How subtle is it? Should I avoid it in any case?

share|improve this question

closed as off-topic by FumbleFingers, jimm101, ab2, Drew, curiousdannii Mar 1 at 12:53

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

2  
It does have that connotation of being poor quality, at least to my ear. You can try economical, low-priced, etc instead. – NVZ Feb 29 at 14:58
4  
It depends on the context. In that hotel is cheaper than this one but offers the same accommodations, using cheaper doesn't carry any negative connotations. Usually, when people compare price, they also compare quality. Your last two sentences are ambiguous. If someone said either to me, I would follow up with something along the lines of "but is X better?" – ChongDogMillionaire Feb 29 at 14:58
6  
'cheap' is different from 'cheaper'. 'That hotel is cheap' is definitely negative, almost pejorative, judgmental. 'That hotel is cheaper' just says that it is less expensive. There may be a tinge of inferred 'not as good' but is not a definite negative as 'cheap'. – Mitch Feb 29 at 16:42
1  
Any person in sales, when selling a less expensive version of an item will prefer (and sometimes even redirect you) that their item is 'less expensive' than the competitor, not 'cheaper' because of the quality connotation in 'cheaper'. – railsdog Feb 29 at 17:19
    
Any time something costs less than something else, it's common to think, "Why does it cost less? It must not be as good in some way." So while the word cheap does add extra negative connotation over other words and phrases like "more affordable", there is always a good chance for a negative inference when pointing out a lower price, especially in comparison to another product (i.e., it might make the other product seem better). See also: prestige pricing – Todd Wilcox Feb 29 at 20:33
up vote 11 down vote accepted

Cheap has two meanings.

Cheap is often used to convey low quality. It easily gets attached to any object being described, even if the price is not low at all.

These cheap shoes cost half my paycheck!

It can also mean a price that is lower than expected. In fact, the original meaning of cheap was 'bargain'. To make sure it has this meaning, use the adjective to modify something related to the price and not the item itself.

Look at the cheap price tag on these shoes!

To illustrate, note how the meaning shifts in the following sentences:

I bought a cheap laptop.

I bought a laptop for a cheap price.

The 'low quality' connotation is minimized when 'cheap' becomes the comparative adjective, 'cheaper'. It imparts some context that it is probably the price of two items you are comparing. However, because you are not stating clearly that it is the price that is cheap, it still conveys a the possibility of low quality.

share|improve this answer
    
I think your last example sums it up pretty nice. +1 – Shevliaskovic Feb 29 at 15:04
    
I like the last example, but price tags, being made of cardboard, are usually cheap. – TimLymington Feb 29 at 16:18
    
So funny, TimLymington! I imagine some marketing types looking at the price tags in different stores in a mall, comparing the quality of the paper, the ink, the little plastic thing that attaches it. But I think that illustrates it perfectly. Whatever noun the adjective 'cheap' modifies, is classed as 'low quality'. If you apply it directly to the word 'price', all ambiguity is gone. – Lynnjamin Feb 29 at 17:01
1  
+1 but you might want to add (as per ChongDogMillionaire's and Mitch's comments to the question) that "cheaper" doesn't (necessarily) have the same negative connotation. – TripeHound Feb 29 at 17:24
    
Thanks TripeHound! That's a really good point, and it more directly addresses the OP's question. – Lynnjamin Feb 29 at 17:38

I know you've already accepted an answer but I would still like to offer what little wisdom I have.

Context is definitely huge when dealing with the word cheap

In order to illustrate this, please see the examples below:


Guy1: Should we fly directly to Miami?

Guy2: Nah, let's catch the flight to West Palm and drive down; the flight is much cheaper.

Guy1: Cool, which hotel should we get.

Guy2: Whichever one is cheaper, but not too cheap.


You are in a store and you overhear:

Wow, these shoes are cheap.

versus

Wow! These shoes are cheap!

versus

Wow! These shoes are inexpensive!


Husband: Which water heater should we buy to replace the old one?

Wife: I'd say this one; it is much more affordable.

Husband: No way! Haven't you heard of how cheap that brand is?! We'll pay the extra $100 and save ourselves a headache.


You invite your friend to the baseball game this weekend and they say:

I'd love to but only if we get cheap-seats.

versus

I'd love to but I can only get budget-friendly seats.

share|improve this answer

Yes, avoid it, preferably. My mother tongue is not English, but I have been told by a British person that - at least to him - "cheaper" did have a negative connotation. After all, English is spoken by hundreds of millions of people, and not all speakers get the same meaning from the same words, so even when somebody feels no negative flavour in a word, chances are that somebody else feels it. So, when you mean "less expensive", just say "less expensive": this doesn't lend itself to confusion.

share|improve this answer
    
You are quite right. But it is possible, in the right context, to use cheap without it necessarily implying poor quality - though often it does. Also a cheap comment or cheap remark is something easily made but at the expense of another person's feeling or reputation. – WS2 Feb 29 at 17:15

It doesn't necessarily give the impression of lower quality. It really refers to the price. Some X shoes might cost 100$ and some Y shoes cost 80$. If the X shoes are on sale and drop the price to 70$, that doesn't mean that the quality is lower than that of the Y shoes that cost 10$ more.

But it might actually imply that the cheaper shoes are not as good as the expensive ones. Really depends on the context; I don't think there is a definite answer.

share|improve this answer

I don't even feel like the two senses in which it describes a product are different denotatively. They might be listed as two definitions provided in a dictionary but if you look at them they mean the same thing: inexpensive.

The thing is that while the adjective technically modifies one noun, what you're actually describing is something else that's closely related to it.

Look at these great shoes I bought. They were cheap too!

What you're actually describing is the price tag on the shoes. The shoes are the same regardless of the price tag.

I bought these last month and they're already falling apart! What cheap shoes!

Here, what you're describing is the manufacturing of the shoes. It was low-cost, inexpensive (in other words, cheap) manufacturing. The low quality of the shoes has allowed you to infer that the manufacturing was cheap.

If you call a person cheap, it's again the same denotative meaning, but again is applied to something else that's closely related to the person--the kinds of products they buy.

But there's also a different sense that is similar but not quite the same, when you're discussing effort rather than resources. Examples are as in cheap tactics or taking cheap shots.

Generally there's no expense monetarily but it's still similar in that what's being described produces results for little effort.

share|improve this answer
    
A 'cheap remark' could not be called an inexpensive one. And most, if not all, dictionaries list two senses and thus two denotations. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 29 at 23:04
    
I do like this answer though. If it the author would fix it up a little, it'd have my up-vote :) – Terah Feb 29 at 23:22
    
True enough. Edited to mention that sense. – Devsman Mar 1 at 13:22

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.