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I always use the phrase less than perfect in a sarcastic way, meaning that something is not good at all. For example:

My date was obviously less than perfect. She was late and in a hurry, and she kept talking about her ex-boyfriend.

But I start to wonder if this phrase can be used in a non-sarcastic way, as a parallel to almost perfect. As an example, could it be used in this context?

Enjoy your day to its fullest. If anybody in the office makes your day less than perfect, go and talk to them.

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Maybe this is a less than perfect comment, but either one of those uses seems fine to me. –  J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 19:29
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Agreed, and the tone depends entirely on context. –  Barrie England Aug 8 '12 at 19:30
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Substitute almost perfect in the second example. The meaning is 180° from what it was with less than perfect. –  Robusto Aug 8 '12 at 19:48
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Seriously, although some have noted that less than perfect can be uttered sans sarcasm (depending on context), I hardly think it ever means a positive thing. Certainly it doesn't mean almost perfect.

Enjoy your day to its fullest. If anybody in the office makes your day less than perfect, go and talk to them.

Enjoy your day to its fullest. If anybody in the office makes your day almost perfect, go and talk to them.

Sentence 1 is saying someone marred the perfection of your day. Sentence 2 is saying someone helped make your day wonderful.

If you really want to use less than perfect to mean almost perfect you have to add a modifier of some kind to the phrase.

Her performance was only slightly less than perfect.

This means it was damn near perfect.

Her performance was less than perfect.

This means it wasn't very good, and the range of her failure is yet to be discussed.

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I agree with what you said about Sentence 1 and Sentence 2, but I thought the O.P. wanted to convey the meaning of Sentence 1, that is: My day was going very well, until someone made it "less than perfect." (In other words, I still had a very good day, but it was marred by one incident.) If that's the case, I'd recommend saying it in the style of Sentence 1. –  J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 20:45
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@J.R.: The problem is, sarcasm often comes with understatement or hyperbole. It becomes hard to gauge how much less than perfect the day was. –  Robusto Aug 8 '12 at 20:47
    
I think we agree then. "Less than perfect" can mean "almost perfect," but it's subject to interpretation, and there's no guarantee that the hearer (or reader) will interpret the message as the speaker (or author) intended it to come across. Use with extreme caution? –  J.R. Aug 8 '12 at 20:54
    
Perfect. Your first example clearly shows how the negativity is removed from the sentence. I agree with you that it hardly conveys a message close to almost perfect. So, as far as my question is concerned, less than perfect, as a phrase, always carries a hint of sarcasm. –  narengi Aug 9 '12 at 15:42
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It's not always sarcastic. It is always used in at least a moderately negative context.

The principle at work here is as follows: base probabilities are different than their negations. (It's been patented! In the medical sphere and related to probability, sure, but the same principles carry over.)

Without going into any of the (somewhat inscrutable) math in here, base probabilities (or goodness) and their negations aren't just p and 1 - p. If you look at Fig. 4, for example, 'always' has a probability of 99%, and 'not always' has a probability of 96%.

Now, comparing perfection to probability is a stretch, but I believe much the same principle applies - 'less than perfect', might very well be in the top 90% or even 95%, but it's not in the top 99%.

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I find what you say interesting, albeit not useful to me, as it is difficult to find information like sources of data or fundamental principles or reasoned conclusions within the 16 pages of the referenced patent. Also, "compound adjectives unpack backwards" is close to being empty buzzwords. –  jwpat7 Aug 9 '12 at 6:18
    
Yeah, I started answering this question before I'd really read it. Shame on me; I'll go back in and fix it. –  rsegal Aug 9 '12 at 12:31
    
@rsegal This is a novel but not particularly useful answer for an EL&U question, I think. I didn't down vote, because it makes me happy to see alternatives to the Google Ngram viewer used for this sort of thing! However, the corpus for which these probabilities would be applicable is limited to communications and literature specific to medical caregivers, probably licensed M.D.'s or equivalent. That's why I don't think it is that helpful, as it is such a localized (narrowly scoped) answer. –  Feral Oink Aug 13 '12 at 5:23
    
... But that is a REALLY COOL PATENT circa 1998! I enjoyed reading it. Probability distribution is Bernoulli, no? Not inscrutable, don't be so self-deprecating! Michael Segal was granted three other patents- the patient data privacy idea was nice too. If Michael M Segal ~> rsegal, where ~> = progeny or other relation, forward my complements, please? I spent the past four hours reading his patents! –  Feral Oink Aug 13 '12 at 5:26
    
You are a very observant fellow. Relation. We're the sort of family with diffraction gratings in our wallets. :) –  rsegal Aug 13 '12 at 12:20
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His vision was less than perfect, thus he didn't qualify to become a pilot.

I think there's no sarcasm in that sentence.

His love for her was less than perfect; he was always buying her gifts and flowers.

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I think their's still some sarcasm here. In fact, the second sentence seems a contradiction. –  American Luke Aug 8 '12 at 22:50
    
it's supposed to be flattery, if i got the intent across correctly. a sort of sarcasm in reverse, i.e. in a positive way –  Chris Aug 9 '12 at 0:49
    
Sorry, it doesn't come across that way to me. –  American Luke Aug 9 '12 at 1:10
    
@Chris: I think there's still a hint of sarcasm here, too, and agree with Luke. Maybe not toward the to-be pilot guy, but toward his sense of sight. To me, without the sarcasm, saying that his vision is "less than perfect" would suggest that "nothing is perfect, so is your vision. so it's normal", which is not the intent of the speaker at all. –  narengi Aug 9 '12 at 1:44
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