What is worse than mediocre? Is it bad, or is there a level between mediocre and being pure bad?

Is mediocre slightly better than bad, and bad better than pathetic?

I want to use this in my prose in a context as:

The condition of roads was worse than mediocre

What can be used here?

  • 1
    Since "condition" is singular, it should start out "The condition of roads was..." Regarding your question: in general, I don't think you'll be able to place all adjectives of this sort along a definite spectrum that applies for all speakers. Different people will have different opinions. And the most important and clear-cut differences in the meaning of adjectives will be recorded in dictionaries. However, you did include a definite context, and that helps a lot. I'm still thinking about it; I guess we can see what other people say.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 8:29
  • 1
    As with all questions that ask us to place adjectives on a "scale/spectrum", this is Primarily Opinion-based. Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 14:55
  • @FumbleFingers I disagree. The point of explanations is to articulate our vague usages. That is not 'primarily opinion based'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 14:58
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers I agree that the orderability on those adjectives you mention is difficult. I have two points: 1) it is possible to give readers an idea of how vague something is on a scale. 2) you are too quick to give a close vote for something that can have interesting and informative answers here. There are so many other much lower quality closable questions here that it seems a waste to vote to close a meaningful question like this one. Don't press the button just because it is so easily pressable for you.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 15:32
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers I don't think it suggests that at all; it cites a paper suggesting those as a gradient. If you need a gradient like that I think it's as good as any.
    – Casey
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 21:29

16 Answers 16


Hicks, Valentine, Morrow, and McDonald wrote a paper in the field of game design, entitled "Choosing Natural Adjective Ladders", suggesting the following ladder of adjectives in order:

Abysmal, Awful, Bad, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Excellent, Amazing, Phenomenal.
- quoted under the Open Gaming License at the end of the linked paper.

These adjectives look like they would apply to roads as well.

@BESW reported an updated ladder in the comments to this answer. (Thanks!)

Listing the adjectives in the same order as above from worst to best, we see:

Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Average, Fair, Good, Great, Superb, Fantastic, Epic, Legendary.

The original list was copyrighted 2006; the new list, 2013-2015. The new list is used in a game and the researchers and research aren't referenced on the page. It would appear that mediocre has become more so, but poor is still considered to be worse than mediocre.

  • 11
    Wow, that's a nice find! I doubted that an objective answer could be found, but this seems as close as it's likely to get. "Poor" certainly works to describe road condition.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 9:20
  • 3
    @WS2: I don't think so. But I agree with Lawrence's source that something that is just "mediocre" seems better than something "poor," "bad," "awful," or "abysmal."
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 10:57
  • 5
    To me, mediocre is often a less-technical sounding way to say "nominal". As in, "just barely good enough to be acceptable". Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 13:17
  • 4
    The date on that paper seems to be 2006, which means Hicks was testing the adjective ladder for at least three years, building on work dating back to 1992. Their current version of it (released in 2013) can be found here.
    – BESW
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 3:43
  • 1
    The list of current designers of Fate Core can be found here. The original adjective ladder was created by O’Sullivan for the Fudge RPG system. It may be interesting to compare the ladder's evolution over time (for example, 1995's Fudge ladder includes Superb, which was replaced with Excellent by 2006 and then reinstated in 2013). If I find any more recent discussions about the ladder I'll link them.
    – BESW
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 4:22



below an average level.

If you want to say something is objectively below average, this would be an adequate word. I would say it's less subjective than "bad."

"The roads were in subpar condition." (the roads were of below average condition but not necessarily bad in absolute terms)



below the usual or required standard.

"The roads were in substandard condition."

  • Did you see that Rathony's answer already mentioned "substandard"? You seem to be contrasting "subpar" and "substandard" in your answer, but I don't understand the difference you're pointing out. What's the distinction between "below average condition" and "below the usual standard"?
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 9:08
  • @sumelic good call on the contrast. I was just including the second definition without considering the contents of my original post.
    – CDM
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 9:13
  • I do think it's valuable to compare options in this kind of answer, I just wan't sure I understood. Actually, now I think I have realized the slight difference between "below average" and "below standard": there might be a situation where most of the roads are below standard quality (if the standard is "set" by someone and their expectations are not met), but it's impossible for most of them to be below average (assuming by "average" we mean "mean," but the analogous idea applies to other types of averages too).
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 9:15
  • 1
    @ed86 no, not necessarily. Standards are not necessarily averages. There might be a corporate or government checklist, target or mandated standard that might be very different to the actual average. Imagine you're a surveyor, you've got a list of all features good roads should have, and you find that actually, almost no roads meet that standard, even the ones people think of as being above average. Another example, you'd hope that 95%+ of restaurants meet food safety standards (including subpar ones), while 99%+ of restaurants won't meet Michelin's strict quality standards Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 11:39
  • 3
    @sumelic: You said "it's impossible for most of them to be below average (assuming by average we mean mean)" but actually that IS possible. Example: {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 100} The type of average, which a supermajority cannot be below, is the median.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 17:49

You could consider using substandard which is broadly used to mean:

Below the usual or required standard: 'In the country's capital city, Santo Domingo, much of the housing is substandard and the quality of the water is poor.'

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

Actual usage:

In a damning report released late last week, it emerged that more than one third of roads in the Highlands are of substandard condition. Not only that but roads in the north are deteriorating faster than virtually every other part of Scotland.



In a professional setting, you'd expect to see

Unsatisfactory adj - not good enough


Shoddy, unsatisfactory, substandard, abysmal, crummy, third-rate

"The condition of the road was shoddy."


I want to use this in my prose in a context as follows - "The condition of roads was "worse than mediocre" - what can be used here?

The word you are looking for is poor.

You can't do the job with only one word. You need to add at least a clause, for example:

"the condition of the roads was poor because they had not been paved, but only patched, for the past 15 years."

I write as a connoisseur of roads on the poorish end of the spectrum, from the fair road I live on (winding, narrow, in need of repaving, no shoulders and charming) to some dreadful 4WD roads in Colorado (barely passable by a large SUV with high clearance.)

Mediocre is not a word used to describe roads. (A performance can be mediocre.) For roads, in the sequence quoted by user Lawrence, skip mediocre and go from fair to poor. (If you are in New Hampshire, "middlin'" can be used for anything.)

Abysmal, Awful, Bad, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, Excellent, Amazing, Phenomenal

A word about the upper end of the sequence. A road can be good or excellent, but great sounds odd, applied to a road. As for amazing or phenomenal applied to a road -- you'd sound like a hick seeing a highway for the first time. (Great, amazing or phenomenal can be used to describe a performance.)

I'm not going to get far into the opinion-based argument, except to say that my fair road might be a good road by the standards of someone who lives several miles up a dirt road. But most people will know pretty much what you mean by a poor road -- sort of a 15 mph road.

As for passable or impassable, applied to a road: it depends on what you are driving and how well you drive.

  • I like this answer, as it reflects the fact you would never use an adjective such as 'phenomenal' to describe the physical condition of the road. The driving experience, maybe, but not the condition. For a road, I think all of the bad adjectives could be used, but on the positive side, far fewer, good, excellent, perfect maybe
    – Greg Woods
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 8:37

The next step below mediocre, that I can think of, is passable.

passable 1. just good enough to be acceptable; satisfactory: he spoke passable English.

This directly contrasts with the other suggestions such as subpar, substandard, poor, and unsatisfactory, which suggest uselessness. Passable describes something which probably will get the job done.

For roads in particular, this word has a second meaning which fits your question perfectly.

passable 2. (of a route or road) clear of obstacles and able to be traveled along or on: the road was passable with care.

  • 1
    "tolerable" is a synonym for the first sense.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 10:08
  • I'd say that passable is above mediocre...
    – Zenadix
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 15:37
  • @Zenadix [citation needed]. My dictionary says "of only moderate quality; not very good: a mediocre actor," which pretty clearly agrees with me. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 2:38

How about "mediocre at best"? .


Mediocre does not necessarily mean bad, its meaning is pretty close to ordinary, not special.


Dude, your work in the last project was mediocre

Whereas in Anglish:

Dude, your work in the last project was meh...


I think saying "worse than mediocre" as is, is pretty good.

The condition of the roads in that area were worse than mediocre. Some have said they were pitiful while others have argued they were pathetic. Either way, it is safe to say the roads were not very good.

Sounds kind of Douglas Adamish though.


I agree with the descriptive scales above. However, when the roads I am negotiating are not acceptable (worse than mediocre, just passable, average) I've been partial to "disreputable condition of roads", also dilapidated and shoddy. These are not on a logical +/- spectrum, but somehow transcends those, and conveys worse than mediocre, yet not unpassable.



Given the months of construction delays, the condition of the road was disappointing.

A thing cannot be good or bad or high or low without some standard against which it should be judged. Disappointing tells us that the road was not at the quality level that the speaker expected.

While driving on a gravel road would not be my preference, I would not be disappointed if I had to drive on one in the country. I would be disappointed if an interstate was as busted up as a gravel road.



It is not exactly what you asked, and I do not know the full context, but it sounds like a good example of where one could use showing language instead of telling. Again, I know you did not ask that, but I offer it as you said what could be said.

I want to use this in my prose in a context as follows - "The condition of roads was "worse than mediocre" - what can be used here?

"Unlike the nice, straight Roman roads in the city, these "roads" felt like they were adopted by the local carnival, every mile engineered by carnies from the DOT to test vehicle shock absorbers. Each mile had its own unique gravel pockets full of steamy, puddled water. The car bounced and squeaked, the hood floating or the floorpan scraping, and the seat belt buckle tightened against the gut, like sitting in shrunken jeans on a rusty old Tilt-O-Whirl."

Or, just "roads" (in quotes) as in so-called roads.

Or, maybe this is a better answer for the writing Stack Exchange.


I have always considered "mediocre" to be between "good" and "bad," and if you wish to expand the number of descriptors then medi should be based firmly in the center according to the Latin roots; using game definition gradients in my opinion is a poor basis. I understand writers have the desire to vary the words used (a very English problem), but game developers have a different agenda which leads to lack of balance around a central term.

Just to add a different perspective to the "subpar, substandard" discussion;

a) "par" is less of an average more of an expected result, golf par for example is the expected score based on a specific level of golfer, which oddly enough make the best golfers in the world subpar. This has always amused me anyway :)

b) "substandard" again, standards are usually much higher than average leading us to minimum standards as a common 20th century term. I personally think that substandard should only be used where standards are actually involved (road quality would potentially work here).

Something that was briefly touched on was standards in a given region. Not mentioned was the actual subject; that is, discussing roads. If you are thinking an Englishman using a road in some third world where they would be happy to have an actual road surface in most areas, then the subjective view becomes important.


The word you are looking for is "abominable"

Consider the following statement,"Performance of our team in yesterday's match is abominable".

  • 2
    Actually, it seems the OP is looking for a word in-between mediocre and bad. Abominable is worse than bad. It's (in fact) worse than pathetic (also used in his question).
    – Cullub
    Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 22:21

Downright mediocre! Where 'downright' accentuates the mediocre. Downright is defined as: to an extreme degree; thoroughly, i.e."he was downright rude". However, I think this word has greater usage in America rather than in the UK.

Source: Google Dictionary

  • I'd definitely say "downright" is common in BrE - usually with a strong negative connotation. And to effectively say that somebody was "of middling degree to an extreme degree" is delightful British understatement!
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 20:26

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