Very often I hear the phrase 'harsh but fair' used to describe something that is unduly severe, but ultimately just. I don't think that it even makes sense, though - and although I've tried to discuss it on a number of occasions, have never met anyone that seems to agree with me.

If something is harsh (in the sense that is is unduly severe), how can it possibly also be fair?

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  • 1
    You are assuming that harsh means unduly severe. It doesn't, or doesn't always. It can also mean just severe. – Colin Fine Jul 6 '14 at 15:33
  • I'm not sure that a question specifically about the use of language is off-topic, but you're the boss – Thomas Aug 1 '14 at 22:03

A punishment may be harsh, but if it's meted out equally to all who merit it, it would be considered fair (impartially administered or unbiased). If you have trouble seeing how this could be, maybe you're not seeing one sense of the word 'fair'.

  • That would make sense, but in that example, you have split the focus of the sentence. 'Fair' in the context that you describe it refers to the distribution of the punishment, not the punishment itself (which as it is harsh, cannot be fair!). – Thomas Jul 6 '14 at 13:36
  • You clearly have a point of view you've been defending for some time, that rests on a particular reading of the phrase you posted. Yes, if you define the punishment itself as 'not fair' then your interpretation is unassailable. But I don't think that's how others see the phrase. It's "Humpty Dumpty" syndrome: 'when I use a word...' – Jim Mack Jul 6 '14 at 13:41
  • Yes, all "who merit it"--there's the rub. A punishment that is harsher than deserved can hardly be fair, but if it is harsher than expected or harsher than was formerly customary (under the previous, more lenient captain of the ship, say), without being harsher than deserved, and if it is applied without favoritism or malice or other bias, then it can well be "harsh but fair." – Brian Donovan Jul 6 '14 at 13:57
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    +1 And this is as good an answer as you're likely to get, Red. If you're trying to force "harsh" to mean unfair, then your question has no answer; if you'll allow the word some expressive latitude, as most readers and writers do, then it is answered here. – Robusto Jul 6 '14 at 17:12
  • It sounds like you're probably right, @Robusto. Thanks to Brian, also, for helping me to look at it in a way I hadn't considered before. – Thomas Jul 6 '14 at 19:14

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