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I was chatting with a friend who is a proficient but non-native speaker of English, and a misunderstanding came up about my usage of a phrase of the form "<something> is bad about <doing something bad>", with the intended meaning that the thing in question commonly does the bad thing. e.g. "Willow trees are bad about causing damage to water lines".

My friend's point was that doesn't make sense, because if they are bad about doing that, that logically means they don't do it. So I got to looking/searching/thinking, and it seems like there are examples of either case, where that form of phrase could mean that a thing commonly happens, or a thing commonly doesn't happen.

For example, "They are bad about brushing their teeth" vs. "They are bad about not brushing their teeth". In my mind, both phrases mean the same thing - that they don't commonly brush their teeth.

Does the meaning of the phrase depend on whether the action/effect is perceived to be good or bad? So either a thing perceived as good doesn't commonly happen, or a thing perceived as bad commonly does happen?

Or I guess maybe another way to look at it is that the phrase is always used in the sense that has the negative connotation?


A few other examples of similar phrases, for reference.

Women, too, are bad about prying into the affairs of men.

Conversation with the High Priest of Coosa, Charles M. Hudson, page 7, books.google.com

Human eyes are bad about misjudging tall objects.

Shotgunning: The Art and the Science, Bob Brister, page 136, books.google.com

I don't eat the pears off that tree because they are bad about having body hair in them.

Stories by Charlie: Mtn. View Arkansas, Charles E. Forte, page 62, books.google.com

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    Perhaps bad at doing something means they don't do it well, bad about means their doing it (or not doing it) has a bad effect. A virus may be bad about making people sick because it is good at doing it.
    – Peter
    Sep 11 '20 at 10:05
  • Oh, that's a good point. I hadn't considered the difference between "bad about" and "bad at"
    – JesusFreke
    Sep 11 '20 at 10:06
  • To my ears, "Willow trees are bad about causing damage to water lines" sounds unacceptable. I'm not going to say it is unacceptable, because proving a negative is difficult, but a quick Google search hasn't turned up any relevant hits. "Jimmy is bad at maths","What is bad about burning fossil fuels?" "I feel bad about it" etc, // Beavers/hippos are good/bad at controlling flooding in plains" ... all fine, of course. Can you give a relevant example using 'bad about' from a reputable source? Sep 11 '20 at 10:40
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    @EdwinAshworth It sounds reasonable, if a bit informal, to my native American English ears. But I certainly don't claim to be an expert on English grammar. I added a few examples in the question that I was able to quickly find via a search on books.google.com for "are bad about".
    – JesusFreke
    Sep 11 '20 at 11:24
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    'X is bad about Ying Z' seems to have various meanings. in your examples, 'X is bad in that it does Y to Z' ('water lines'; 'women') // 'X is bad in that it misevaluates the H of Z' ('tall objects') // 'X is bad in that it Y's Z' ('contains human hair). I'd steer clear of possible non-intersective (a good pickpocket not being good in the default sense) usage with so dubious an idiom. Sep 11 '20 at 13:35
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For me, a native BrE speaker, Tommy is bad about brushing his teeth. communicates information about Tommy; the frequency of his brushing is inferred. It implies that Tommy (most likely) lacks the discipline to brush when he should.

Hence, suggesting that a willow tree is bad about doing this or that intimates that the willow tree could do otherwise, which it can't.

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  • Ah, interesting. So you're suggesting that "Willow trees are bad about causing damage to water lines" is not a proper usage of that form of phrase in either sense, because it's not about choice, but rather innate nature? But putting that aside, what about something like "Tommy is bad about scribbling on the walls." In that case, it seems to me to mean the opposite - that the action is more likely to occur. So the meaning seems to depend on whether the action is perceived to be good or bad?
    – JesusFreke
    Sep 11 '20 at 10:24
  • Is this usage even grammatical? 'John is bad about doing his homework'? Sep 11 '20 at 10:45
  • @JesusFreke: I'm going to stick to my guns. In your new example, Tommy lacks the discipline (or self-control) to not draw on the walls when he knows he shouldn't. And John lacks the discipline to do his homework when he knows he should. To my ears, both examples are grammatically correct. Sep 11 '20 at 10:49
  • @PhilipWitt Right - that's the inverse of the meaning in the teeth brushing statement. In the brushing case, he lacks the discipline to do the positive thing. In the scribbling case, he lacks the discipline to not do the negative thing. The meaning is inverted, depending on whether the action is perceived to be good or bad. But in both cases, the meaning of the phrase is taken in sense that has the negative connotation.
    – JesusFreke
    Sep 11 '20 at 10:54
  • @JesusFreke: I would say in both cases Tommy lacks something. What he lacks changes not that he lacks. Sep 11 '20 at 10:58

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