I thought I was always taught at school that criticism meant evaluation and opinion, either positive or negative. These days, it seems criticism, or to criticise, is almost exclusively used to mean negative commentary. Dictionaries seem to acknowledge both variations, but has there been a semantic shift in the words recently, and what is the usual meaning?

Wikipedia, for example, has many Criticism sections which are generally a list of negative opinions. Whilst I know they are discouraged for this reason, would they semantically be better named Negative Criticism sections? On the other hand, a film critic is still assumed to give as many positive reviews as negatives, so this would seem inconsistent.

8 Answers 8


I don't think there was a recent shift; there are words with two distinct meanings, one of which is more used and therefore requires little or no context and the other, more rare which requires context to be established before the less common meaning of the word can be used to refer to something.

This is exactly an example, etymonline shows word critic in use since 1580s, from "one who passes judgment," but gives the warning that "the English word always had overtones of 'censurer, faultfinder.'"

Macmillan list these two distinct meanings:

  1. someone whose job is to write or broadcast their opinions about things such as books, movies, or plays

  2. someone who does not like something and states their opinion about it

As for "Negative Criticism" it does, for me, and taken out of context, bring a bit of a pleonastic smell to the phrase; however I don't object to "Positive Criticism".

In regular use I would use "criticism" to refer to "negative criticism", however in names of sections, especially if "Positive Criticism" closely follows or precedes, then "Negative Criticism" sounds pretty justified to me (it also emphasizes the fact that you use the word criticism as neutral, so the text should be consistent with that, too).

  • 2
    Great and interesting answer, especially the reference to etymonline. Incidentally, I have heard people verbing the word critique as in, "You need to get your work critiqued," I assume to avoid this ambiguity. I will probably stick to review or evaluate if I want be unambiguous.
    – Tim Rogers
    Jun 14, 2011 at 10:43
  • @Tim, yes I agree; Here's a little illustration ngrams.googlelabs.com/… of different terms, which is just a very vague and colorful illustration (there are so many factors to consider to draw any conclusions; one thing it does show is that the phrases are used)
    – Unreason
    Jun 14, 2011 at 14:00

In practice, "criticism" is probably 80 percent negative. So your impression that it is rarely positive is correct.

However, you are also correct that criticism can (and occasionally is) positive. Book, restaurant, theater and fashion critics are known to praise work that they evaluate.

If you want to stress the idea of criticism being neutral or positive, you can ask for (or refer to) "constructive criticism," which generally means positive, or you can use the term "critique," as Tim Rogers mentions above.

  • 8
    constructive criticism isn't positive in the same way a positive critique is positive. constructive criticism points out what is wrong, so could be seen as negative, but always gives an explanation as to why, and possibly advice as to how to fix it. A positive critique is praise, probably with explanation as to why. Jun 14, 2011 at 14:57
  • 1
    Good clarification. +1 to you.
    – The Raven
    Jun 14, 2011 at 18:10

Merriam-Webster does distinguish between criticism as

the act of criticizing usually unfavorably


the art of evaluating or analyzing works of art or literature; also : writings expressing such evaluation or analysis

the scientific investigation of literary documents (as the Bible) in regard to such matters as origin, text, composition, or history

It seems that if we are not talking about arts or science, criticism is a negative form of analysis, more finding faults, than providing positive feedback. Wikipedia also states, that criticism is often meant as an objection against its object

Criticism is the judgement of the merits and faults of the work or actions of an individual or group by another (the critic). To criticize does not necessarily imply to find fault, but the word is often taken to mean the simple expression of an objection against prejudice, or a disapproval.


Criticism doesn't necessarily mean negative judgements, although it is commonly understood to be so. this is due to frequent usage.
"Crticism" is the act of passing judgement as to the merits of anything. This means that it could mean that the thing could have good merits, or poor merits.

As you said, it basically means the evaluation of something. This can be seen by music, or art critics.

Although criticism is commonly understood as a negative opinion i.e. He criticises too much, this is just one definition of "criticism."


I think in theory it can mean either (it comes from the Greek word κριτής - krité - meaning judge) but in practice, without any qualifying adjectives, it's taken to be pejorative, 'You're always criticising me' implies 'you're always finding fault'. So if you want to make sure you need to supply an adjective: 'I'm looking for constructive criticism'.


It seems that criticism has several distinct meanings.

[krit-uh-siz-uhm] –noun

  1. the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
  2. the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.
  3. the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.

So definitions 1 and 3 seem to allow for the positive as well as negative sense. However definition 2 is entirely negative.

So the sense it which it is meant is determined only by context.


Criticism means to point out flaws or weaknesses. Ultimately, it can be positive if it is given honestly, and used to find ways of improving.

But I would not generally say that criticism implies something positive.


It seems to me that, at least in business settings, the word "feedback" has largely replaced the value-neutral sense of "criticism."

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