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The way I was taught many years ago was that something like quality can be poor, but not bad.

The reasoning was that "bad" is a value/moral whereas poor applies to non-value qualities. In this case, evil people can be bad, but not poor (unless they have no money).

Is this still the case? I find more often that people use "bad" to describe most things that "poor" would traditionally be used for.

  • Poor
    • This burger was really ____ quality.
    • Wow, that chair is of ____ craftsmanship.
    • Johnson handled the account ____ly, so we lost it.
    • He drives so ____ly, it is a wonder how he ever passed his test in the first place.
  • Bad
    • That barking dog is ____.
    • The ____ boy broke my window.
    • No one can dispute that Hitler was a ____ man.

So what about where things are less clear-cut? What's the rule of thumb?

  • Wow, that's a really ____ computer you have.
  • My S.O. always treats me ____ly when I forget to take out the trash.
  • I hate that garage! The mechanic always does a ____ job!
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"Is this still the case?". Sadly, it is, was, and always will be the case that literal-minded pedants will make these unjustified distinctions. Some of their pupils will grow up, become teachers, and perpetuate the myths. And in every generation, some new pedants will "discover" such distinctions based on their own falacious reasoning. 'Twas ever thus. –  FumbleFingers Jul 2 '11 at 2:44
    
@FumbleFingers We can certainly apply the Humpty Dumpty Postulate to any "rule" and I would ask whether the point of being a "Literal-minded Descriptive" is make the language clearer and easier to understand or not, so to speak. –  BryanH Jan 29 '13 at 17:02
    
I think your Literal-minded Descriptive must be an example of "Humpty-Dumptyism". After staring at it for several seconds trying to figure out what it might mean, I cut&pasted it into Google, but that produced just three (uninformative) results. So I figured maybe I should try "Literal-minded Descriptivist", but that got no hits at all! (Just kidding - I'm sure you meant prescriptivist! :) –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 '13 at 17:28
    
@FumbleFingers Ha! You are right: I DID mean "Descriptivist" as a tongue-in-cheek response to your original comment about 'literal-minded pendants'. And yes, Humpty-Dumptyism allows me to be cromulent everywhere there's space! –  BryanH Jan 29 '13 at 19:48
    
I'm only a foot-soldier in Humpty Dumpty's army, but rest assured if I had been one of his "five-star generals" I'd definitely have recommended you for a campaign medal there, for so assiduously putting his principles into practice! –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 '13 at 22:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Like many prescriptive rules of its type, this dichotomy was never actually the tradition.

In reality, bad has always been used as a synonym for this sense of poor. (In fact, bad began to be used this way slightly before it was ever used in the moral sense!)

  • According to the OED, the first citation of bad in the moral/value sense dates back to only 1325.
  • Bad in the sense of "not of the expected or requisite quality; poor, worthless; deficient, inferior; of a low standard, below par" dates back to 1276. This is cited throughout the centuries and into the present day. It has had a healthy existence throughout Modern English.

As you can see, bad has always been a synonym of this sense of poor. At a certain point in time, some prescriptivists began to advocate for the dichotomy that you describe, but this was never actually reflected in usage.

See also: less vs. fewer.


So, there is nothing wrong with using bad in any of the cases that you have listed here with poor, though one might aesthetically sound better than another for a given sentence.

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This doesn't give the full picture though. When referring to how bad something is, poor quality is used overwhelmingly more frequently than bad quality: BNC gives 193 for the former, but 12 for the latter (and several of those are false positives such as bad quality control). There are many fewer results, but combining BNC+COCA suggests that poor craftsmanship similarly dominates over bad craftsmanship. To me at least, the "bad" versions sound, if not ungrammatical, at least less formal/educated. So it seems to me that for these, the advice to use "poor" is sound... –  psmears Jul 2 '11 at 9:13
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... provided, of course, that it's presented as such rather than as some sort of inviolable law. By contrast, in the "handled badly" and "drives badly" examples, I perceive little difference between badly and poorly. –  psmears Jul 2 '11 at 9:14
    
@psmears: That's fine. I said that one might aesthetically sound better than the other, but this question was about "what is the rule"? If we're talking about what is grammatical or makes sense semantically, then I'm sure you'd agree that "bad quality" doesn't fail on those grounds. It is just that the phrase "poor quality" is far more common. –  Kosmonaut Jul 2 '11 at 12:09
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Sure, I agree that "bad quality" doesn't fail on grounds of grammaticality or understanding. But I disagree that it is just that "poor quality" is far more common. If someone were to ask "Is it grammatical to use ain't?" and we answered "Yes, but isn't is used more" - then that answer would be correct (for some dialects), but we'd be doing our readers a disservice if we left them with the impression that it was fine to use in a CV. Readers do make judgments based on style; though it's wrong to elevate such judgments to "laws of language" as many try to do, it's equally wrong to... –  psmears Jul 2 '11 at 13:02
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...pretend that such judgments/associations do not exist, because often successful use of language depends on knowing those connotations: if I am writing a CV I am not just attempting to communicate (by my literal meaning) my experience and education, but also (by my spelling, style etc) that I am educated and a competent writer. So my point is: don't throw the baby (useful stylistic advice) out with the (prescriptivist) bathwater - some speakers (eg me) will perceive the bad quality use as less formal (if not hugely so), and this is useful to know. It's not just a matter of frequency. –  psmears Jul 2 '11 at 13:02

The usage of bad eclipses poor. I still personally keep the distinction because I find the nuances helpful. My local dictionary includes these relevant definitions which suggests that bad has more than extended beyond morality:

poor — worse than is usual, expected, or desirable; of a low or inferior standard or quality

bad — of poor quality; inferior or defective

bad — (of a person) not able to do something well; incompetent

bad — morally depraved; wicked

bad — worthless; not valid

There were even more; I just picked the ones I thought most relevant.

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