I need two words to describe the quality of some items - one word describing items of worse quality than the other.

I read this question, Bad or Poor more severe. I'm uncertain if I fully agree with the answer about "bad" being worse than "poor", since poor people still can be good though... Being economically poor and criminally bad, is something different than being of poor quality and bad quality.

I need two words to describe the quality of items - one being items of worse quality than the other - both being items of "bad" quality.

I was thinking of using "low quality" and "poor quality" - but I guess "bad quality" may also be an option. The problem is that I'm uncertain if "low" or "poor" is the worse of them (I thought it low was higher quality than poor, but I may be wrong)... In any case, it's not obvious what's what.

So, should I use "low" and "poor", "bad" and "poor", or "low" and "bad" ?

What would be the ranging within the two ?

Is there perhaps another better word to be used with "low" (or "bad") - or another set of words alltogether?

  • 4
    poor when applied to a person's economic status is a very different sense than applying it to quality of an object.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 11, 2014 at 20:20
  • 3
    See english.stackexchange.com/questions/299005/…, especially the first answer. When you are talking about quality (e.g., a musical performance) bad is worse than poor, and in that context, neither word has anything to do with the income or morals of a person.
    – ab2
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 14:40
  • It's worth calling attention to the phrase "low quality answer" or "low quality question". Both are widely used in stacked change meta discussions. Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 20:08
  • I beg you not to use the word "bad". It grates on our ears. Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 22:36
  • Most ratings systems eg for used books or used vinyl have a small number of terms e.g. excellent/good/fair/poor, and if necessary use qualifiers like "very" or hyphenated (fair-poor). The alternative is letters or numbers. Relying on subjective distinctions is risky and not useful.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 23:04

6 Answers 6


I was intrigued by the "adjective ladder" data in a writeup by Hicks et al. cited by a linked answer to a related question in the comments, but I wanted to see it as a graph with error bars to help me gauge similarity and variance. I've plotted it below.

Choosing Natural Adjective Ladders

I recommend choosing just a handful of these key terms from this chart whose error bars are well separated from each other with somewhat similar distance between them. Perhaps:

  • Awful (1.9 ± 0.08)
  • Limited (3.8 ± 0.09, abysmal + 1.9)
  • Fair (5.4 ± 0.08, limited + 1.6)
  • Good (6.9 ± 0.10, fair + 1.5)
  • Incredible (9.0 ± 0.8, good + 2.1)

The study has its own similar list of eleven items (abysmal, awful, bad, poor, mediocre, fair, good, great, excellent, amazing, phenomenal). Choosing a subset of six of those would simply entail taking every other: abysmal, bad, mediocre, good, excellent, phenomenal). For five, remove either abysmal or phenomenal.

Be careful not to pick terms that are too obscure! "Abysmal" and "Middling" just aren't popular words. (Though note that popularity is not the same as familiarity.) Consider checking Google Ngrams. Here are the most obscure words out of the 24 on the list (since WWII):

Fewest occurrences in printed books (via Google Ngrams): Adjective obscurity via Google Ngrams

Further research needed!

This paper had good methodology, randomizing the list, asking subjects to sort it, then rate it, and a few other tasks the helped them determine subjects' familiarity with each term. They found that "middling" was left blank by most participants, presumably due to a lack of familiarity.

When choosing words, try to avoid the less popular ones (like "middling"). I'd like to see "dismal," "average," and "heroic" in there as well, but keep the list from growing too large.

A larger version of this study could be broken down by region and educational level. If using something like Amazon Mechanical Turk, I suggest restricting participants to regions where English is the primary language rather than the lingua franca.


You could easily differentiate between the two states by including the word "very" in one of them. So then you have a poor quality item and a very poor quality item, or a low quality item and a very low quality item.


ver·y [ver-ee] adverb

  1. in a high degree; extremely; exceedingly: A giant is very tall.

Most modern scales or grading systems take a quantitative, numeric approach. But we want a qualitative, descriptive, discursive scale. Something that uses words instead of numbers.

So we'll need to find an industry that existed before our age of sterile numbers and soulless analytics, which used a qualitative, yet unambiguous, and fundamentally ordered way to compare the quality of products.

Unfortunately, it seems for most industries, such as beef, and lumber, and gemstones, and coins (numismatics) the scales begin at "decent", or at most, have a single grade for "bad" (probably because the products are intended for sale, and if an individual item is below par, commercially it makes more sense to simply discard it than to spend time grading it in detail). However, there is still one group who's unafraid to call a spade a spade (assuming a spade is somehow undesirable): teachers.

Now, there are innumerable schools, and therefore countless grading systems, but several of them suggest a couple of words to fill in your blanks, and almost all of them agree in terms of relative ordering; so, from "best" (of a bad lot) to worst, we have:

  1. fair: neutral
  2. unsatisfactory: bad
  3. poor: worse

In re: which is worse, "poor" or "bad": when searching for qualitative grading systems, I came across what looks like an academic paper (though produced in industry), which reads, in part:

The quality of A and B was indicated by the assessors on a linear scale. The terms of quality on the left side mean: excellent, good, fair, poor, bad.

  • In case anyone ever stumbles across this question looking for a qualitative scale to describe good products, the most interesting "top-tier" word I came across a scale assessing the quality of photographic prints (anseladams.com/ansel-adams-photography/…): pristine. Of course, there's also mint of numismatic fame, but that's too well-known to be interesting (though I enjoy their unselfconscious use of fine to mean "exquisite", rather than "decent" or "acceptable").
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 16:28
  • 1
    And don't forget "extra virgin" as a truly impressive superlative.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 18:15

"Worse", and "worst" would suit your needs quite admirably, in my opinion, and they would work with either "bad" or "poor". So this widget is bad; that widget is worse, and the third one over there is worst.

  • Worse is the comparative degree of bad, just as worst it its superlative degree. “Mike did worse than I did, but Cindy did worst of all.”
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 16:29

"low" and "high" indicate a relative range, a level. Whereas "good" and "bad" are absolute.

I agree with the other post that "bad" being worse than "poor". "poor" indicates it's not very good, where as "bad" is absolute - there isn't much beyond that.

As "high quality" is a term tossed around a lot, I'd go with that scale, and use [low, medium, high], or [very low, low, medium, high, very high]


Here is a 5 tier scale:

High Quality

Above Average Quality

Average Quality

Below Average Quality

Low Quality

Each of these, when compared to another, should make it quite easy for anyone to understand the order that they naturally fall into. This should not only limit any confusion, but also avoid using the word very, which is a below average quality choice for a category title.

  • 1
    Technically, the "average" could be low, too. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 14:53
  • by what definition of average can the word average mean anything that is below average?
    – KnightHawk
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 14:57
  • 1
    Never, of course, yet I'm referring to the last tier. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 14:57
  • A sportsperson who puts in an "average performance" is usually considered to have had a bad game.
    – Ronan
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 15:04
  • Professional sports players are all expected to be above average at least. So, it would depend on whether or not you want to give sports players their own rating system or limit them to only the above average and high tiers of the general rating system. The only way average can be a bad thing is if there is some requirement to be above average.
    – KnightHawk
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 15:10

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