[credit for to this question goes to Ben Hocking, who posted it as an example that seemed to be disagreed upon in Is "certainly possible" an oxymoron? ]

Some web-references (e.g. this one) give the phrase "pretty ugly" as an example of an oxymoron. The meaning of 'pretty' and 'ugly' within the context of the phrase is not contradictory, but a different meaning of those two words is semantically contradictory, which seems to be enough to qualify under this definition for oxymoron:

A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.


Is the phrase "pretty ugly" an oxymoron?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 20 '17 at 23:41

It depends

I'm late to the party so not sure if anyone will see this, but the existing answers are rather incomplete. "Oxymoron" is not a philosophical or logical term of art;¹ it's a rhetorical one.

Thus saith the OED:

1. Rhetoric. A pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms placed in conjunction for emphasis.

2. Any contradiction in terms.

The second is metaphorical and irrelevant—the examples given are "the hardworking loafer that is the colonial Dutchman" (1902), "healthful Mexican food" (1989), and "affordable caviar" (1993)—but the first, the word's original sense going back to its first attestation in Servius, is concerned with intent and effect, not logical reasoning.

Of course, "pretty" and "ugly" are usually opposites and, of course, the adverbial sense of "pretty" is a clipping of "prettily" derived from an older sense of "pretty" as intending "cunningly, skillfully, or ably done".

Again, though, it's a rhetorical term: what matters is intent and effect. For a middle school kid, who says it while giggling at its absurdity, to an audience of middle-school kids, who likewise giggle at its absurdity, it's absolutely an oxymoron. For serious writers, skillful and careful about their word choice, like David Foster Wallace in Broom of the System, it's an oxymoron as well. It's an oxymoron as the title of a book on fashion. It's an oxymoron as the title of a biography of a girl with low self-esteem. It's an oxymoron as the title of a book on oxymorons.

But going back to the giggling middle schoolers, the posters at StackExchange are very largely from the group of students who wanted the teacher to know how much smarter we were than the other kids. Stuff like this, where a common belief is turned on its ear, is catnip for us.

So while, yes, "pretty ugly" isn't an oxymoron when said quickly, unthinkingly, and without any intention or effect apart from specifying "not really ugly but not really good looking, either", oxymoron doesn't actually mean paradox² and shouldn't be analyzed as though it does.

¹ That said, Wikipedia being what it is, "oxymoron" is part of its "index of logic articles".

² Obviously, that's for the technical logical sense of paradox that OP and the other posters were applying when stating "pretty ugly" could never be an oxymoron based on its semantic content. Informally, people sometimes treat them as synonyms, although one is a logical concept and the other a rhetorical device.

  • @Tonepoet Eh, quoting yourself is cute but not very authoritative. The logical definition of paradox far predates any other, going back to classical Latin, and remains a formal definition in philosophy, logic, &c. Its inexact use is informal. – lly Apr 21 '17 at 1:44
  • I'd like to say a few more things regarding the matter in chat if you're willing to indulge me. Please respond there so that I can ping you. Also, I'd like to suggest a few other things: One is that subscript does nothing in this post except make it harder to read, and HTML superscript would more clearly mark your footnotes. Another is that it'd probably be good precaution to include the IBSN of the books, so that people can identify them if the links break. The last is that html superscript is easier to read than the character. – Tonepoet Apr 25 '17 at 13:34

No, they are not oxymorons. Oxymorons contain words that have mutually exclusive meanings. Here's a fair description of this.

In your example. "pretty" and "ugly" do not have opposite meanings. The meaning of "pretty" in this sentence is "somewhat". The meaning of "ugly" is "unattractive". "Somewhat" and "unattractive" are perfectly compatible.

Edit (added 30 July 2015):

However, the entry at dictionary.reference.com/browse/oxymoron gives a strict definition involving actual contradiction in meaning (which was the basis I was working on), but then also gives an "in Culture" definition based on apparent contradiction. "Pretty ugly" appears to fall into the second of these categories even if not the first.

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    The "fair description" you link to actually includes "Pretty ugly" – Spork Jul 17 '15 at 12:28
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    @Spork - To insist that "pretty ugly" is an oxymoron is to ignore the fact that most English words have multiple meaning, and the correct (or at least the intended) meaning is chosen by considering context. From the answer we are commenting on, "the meaning of "pretty" in this sentence is "somewhat". " And, for that matter, I chose my words carefully when I used the phrase "pretty clear". I hope you did not think that I meant "physically attractive clear"? – WhatRoughBeast Jul 17 '15 at 15:51
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    @BenHocking, I'll certainly see if I can find any such lists – Karasinsky Jul 23 '15 at 18:47
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    @BenHocking, a little further searching has found conflicting (and sometimes self-inconsistent) results. More helpful, perhaps, is the entry at dictionary.reference.com/browse/oxymoron , which gives a strict definition involving actual contradiction in meaning (which was the basis I was working on), and then also gives an "in Culture" definition based on apparent contradiction. "Pretty ugly" appears to fall into the second of these categories even if not the first. I must admit I learnt something new from this as I'd never come across this apparent contradiction meaning before. – Karasinsky Jul 28 '15 at 23:25
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    @Karasinsky, I think that your answer would be improved by adding that information. As I've mentioned below, I definitely appreciate the difference between true contradiction and apparent contradiction, or even "apparent only if you squint your eyes and shake your head" contradiction. (As in, the contradictions are only "apparent" if you kinda sorta force it.) – Ben Hocking Jul 29 '15 at 11:59

As "pretty ugly" is a variant for "rather ugly" there is no cause to see it as the literary artistic device of an oxymoron. "pretty ugly" does not mean she is pretty and ugly as well. The meaning is "very/rather ugly".

  • That would be the point of my question, yes. However, under what definition can you say that there is no cause to see it as an oxymoron? Do you have an authoritative reference? – Spork Jul 17 '15 at 13:39
  • Read this site about oxymoron literarydevices.net/oxymoron – rogermue Jul 17 '15 at 19:11
  • "Oxymoron, plural oxymora, is a figure of speech in which two opposite ideas are joined to create an effect". Exactly what is evoked by 'pretty ugly', which strikes one more than 'quite ugly' because of opposing ideas. – Spork Jul 17 '15 at 19:48
  • @rogermue, the site you provide lists "awfully pretty" as an example of an oxymoron. How does that usage differ from "pretty ugly"? – Ben Hocking Jul 23 '15 at 0:10
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    rogermue, to be clear, I completely understand the distinction you're making, as does @Spork. We're not disagreeing that such a distinction can be made. Nor do we disagree that such a distinction is useful. Merely, it's that I cannot find an authoritative source that makes that distinction. Can you? I would like to see such a source, because I truly believe the distinction that you (and many, many others) have made is useful, I just don't see it supported by usage, either formal or informal. – Ben Hocking Jul 23 '15 at 11:53

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