In conversations people often use "not bad". How to interpret this?

Are they feeling good or just not bad or somewhere in the middle?
Does it depend on the context?


X: How are you doing today?
Y: Not bad. You?

Does "not bad" mean "good"?


X: How was the food in that new restaurant?
Y: Not bad.

Are there examples showing "not bad" doesn't mean "good" either?

  • 2
    "Not bad" means "not bad". It can be made to mean "good", but then again so can anything — including plain "bad" itself. Read up on litotes. I am certain your native language has a similar or even completely identical construction, not really leaving much of your question here. See also: Does “not uncommon” mean “common”? and the questions linked from there.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 18, 2013 at 17:07
  • I think this is Not Constructive, in that not bad can mean anything from average/neutral to extremely good, depending on context. Feb 18, 2013 at 22:30
  • 1
    There's a wonderful skit that hinges on the ambiguities of the expression not bad in an episode of 'Yes Minister" (or its sequel). Essentially, it is used to mean 'pretty good / well' or 'mediocre'. Feb 18, 2013 at 23:17
  • Examples of how complicated the nuances of "not bad", "not too bad", "all right" and "all wrong" are two lines from the old Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever which say but it's all right That is I think it's not too bad and But it's all wrong That is, I think I disagree.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 30, 2019 at 12:32

3 Answers 3


It's common in English to use these types of statements where a direct answer might seem too assertive. For example, if you'd asked me how I had been lately, I might say "not bad", rather than "good", as being good implies being better than normal, whereas not bad is just not bad.

In fact, people often describe things in terms of them not being the opposite of what they are. Other examples include:

  • Not the best (bad)
  • Not the brightest (stupid)
  • Not exactly perfect (flawed)
  • Not without its problems (problematic)
  • Not exactly rocket science (trivial)

English speakers often avoid making assertive statements unless they fully intend to be assertive. For example, they may begin a statement of fact with "I believe...", "It seems..." or "Apparently...".

Using direct assertions sparingly gives them more impact too. To say "He's stupid" is less forgiving than saying "He's not the brightest chap I've ever met."

Edwin Ashworth noted in his comment that this amelioration is known as hedging, and the not un-X form described in this answer is known as litotes. From Wikipedia:

In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech and form of verbal irony in which understatement is used to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect.


It depends on where you are usually.

In the USA it typically means "average" or OK. The food wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either.

In the UK it typically means "good". We don't tend to be very encouraging so if there is a food I like and someone asks how it tastes, my response is usually "Not bad. I really like it"


Northern British for good/great. “Not bad” is used to acknowledge things could be a lot worse without giving away that everything is actually fine. There’s an element of machismo mixed with a touch of cynicism. Culturally the phrase does not translate much further south than the Mersey/Humber line in Britain. “Nay bad” and “no bad” are alternative forms found in Scotland and Ireland, whilst “Not bad” and “Not so bad” are more common in Northern England.

  • 1
    Is it really so regional? Please attribute your sources and take a moment for the tour of the site, and welcome to EL&U.
    – livresque
    Apr 1, 2021 at 0:08

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