Take the 2-minute tour ×
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.

Possible Duplicate:
What is the difference between “horrify” and “terrify”?

Since I am not a native English speaker, I always have trouble figuring out when to use "horrible" instead of "terrible" in both spoken and written English.

According to American Heritage Dictionary, Horrible means:

adj. Arousing or tending to arouse horror; dreadful: "War is beyond all words horrible” (Winston S. Churchill).
adj. Very unpleasant; disagreeable.

and Terrible means:

adj. Causing great fear or alarm; dreadful: a terrible bolt of lightning; a terrible curse.
adj. Extremely formidable: terrible responsibilities.
adj. Extreme in extent or degree; intense: "the life for which he had paid so terrible a price” (Leslie Fiedler).
adj. Unpleasant; disagreeable: had a terrible time at the party; terrible food.
adj. Very bad: a terrible actor.

Since their secondary meaning is Unpleasant, disagreeable, are there any rules around when these words should be used, or can they be used interchangeably?

share|improve this question
add comment

marked as duplicate by Robusto, MετάEd, tchrist, Mahnax, TimLymington Sep 23 '12 at 16:48

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

1 Answer

In everyday informal discourse, spoken or written, the words are interchangeable: neither means much of anything beyond "very bad". If someone says to you "Bob's presentation was terrible" you may with perfect propriety respond "Yeah, really horrible."

In more careful usage the two words bear very different different meanings. These reflect the respective first definitions you quote from AHD; see also the discussion of the associated verb forms at the link provided by ЯegDwight in his comment to your question. Briefly:

  • horrible speaks to the sense of outrage which an act or event arouses: the act transgresses ordinary rational or natural or moral boundaries. Hitler's final solution and Lovecraft's Ancient Ones are horrible.
  • terrible speaks to the sense of dread which an act or event arouses: the act is a sign or a warning of what may come to pass. Tamerlane's conquests and the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 are terrible.

Of course an act or event may be both horrible and terrible; but the words address different aspects.

share|improve this answer
    
In the SOng of Solomon (AV) a beautiful woman is described as terrible as an amrny with banners; modern translations prefer something like majestic. –  TimLymington Sep 7 '12 at 12:17
    
@TimLymington But see here, p. 1251. Why we don't do translation or litcrit. –  StoneyB Sep 7 '12 at 12:40
    
Entirely agree that on Translation.SE my point would be out of place. But here, I don't believe anybody interested in the history of terrible can ignore it. (OP may not be, of course, which is why this is a comment not an answer). –  TimLymington Sep 7 '12 at 13:05
    
@TimLymington Quite so. But James' translators worked in a tradition which identified the Song's beloved with the Church, so it's the Church which is metaphorically both a beautiful woman and "terrible". –  StoneyB Sep 7 '12 at 13:37
add comment

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