Many words have multiple meanings but not many words have different meanings in the same context. Fine can mean both very good-to-excellent and acceptable but probably below average. For example, the phrase "that is a fine retelling of the story". Which version of fine is meant? You only really know based upon the context of what is used. Are there examples of other words like this?

Edit 1: As an example, as an undergrad I went to a school with narrative evaluations. As a student, you'd write a paper. If the prof would say, "You used good examples — a fine paper" it would mean acceptable. "You used very good examples — a fine paper"; it would mean exemplary (somewhat implying that 'very good' is understating it.

closed as unclear what you're asking by Kristina Lopez, MrHen, FumbleFingers, choster, tchrist Dec 20 '13 at 21:20

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    Very few words are unlike it. Nearly any word in the English language assumes subtle difference of implication from the context, the tone, the speaker/ author, the works. Fine is a fine example, though, but nothing much special in this respect. – Kris Dec 20 '13 at 14:19
  • If the speaker said, "fine retelling of the story," I would immediately think, in print, that it was good-to-excellent. If the other listeners knew that it was a terrible rendition, then they would understand that the speaker were simply being kind. There are prosody stresses that cue the native listener to the speaker's intent. Here's a different example: "Fat chance" and "slim chance" both mean that the speaker thinks there's little possibility of something occurring. askville.amazon.com/fat-chance-slim-thing/… – rajah9 Dec 20 '13 at 14:25
  • Some words seem to have different (perhaps to the point of opposite) new meanings thrust upon them (gay; wicked) whereas many others are used antiphrastically on occasion for sarcastic or comic effect ('That's nice, that is!' Tommy Cooper). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '13 at 14:33
  • @Kris I appreciate the irony of your last sentence :-) But I disagree because the distinction in fine isn't subtle and is odd in that sense. – timpone Dec 20 '13 at 14:34
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    Another Fine Mess and a fine kettle of fish are both phrases using fine sarcastically. The meaning of fine itself doesn't change. The sarcastic construction is what flips it on its head. – bib Dec 20 '13 at 14:39

Seems to me that the difference you are identifying is a fine (no pun intended) shade of degree. That kind of distinction could be made of almost any adjective. If I say, "This coffee tastes good" in a flat, matter of fact voice, that would be a mild positive. But "Wow, this coffee tastes good!!!" in an excited tone of voice would be a large positive. Indeed, in your example, drop the "very" and the same situation exists for the word "good". "You used good examples in this paper" could mean anywhere from barely adequate to the greatest in the history of paper-writing.

There are some words in English that are much stranger than that. Like "cleave" can mean "to cut in half" or also "to stick together", which are pretty much opposites.

  • cleave is a great one. I think what's odd about fine is that the word is a value word and it has two different meanings. I kinda disagree with your point about good. That's the middle. Most time I see fine used as a value statement it's either as 'acceptable' or 'very good'. Prob more of a peave than a real question. Thx for answer - sorry if I wasted your time. – timpone Dec 20 '13 at 16:28

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