I've long been very annoyed by English speakers who claim that something "works fine" or "runs fine".

To me, it sounds like they are saying that it "functions OK, if you have very low demands and high tolerance for flaws/glitches". "Fine", to me, is a word that is either rarely used correctly, or actually doesn't even mean what they seem to think it means from the beginning.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/fine seems to suggest that "fine" means "perfectly", but that's not my perception of the word.

Isn't it at best highly ambiguous if you want to say that something works exactly as intended and you say that it "works fine"? Wouldn't you say "works perfectly" or "works flawlessly"?

"Fine", to me, sounds fundamentally like a "compromise" of some sort.

  • 3
    No, we can't blame fine for being used ironically, and say this connotation is its sole denotation. I found as an adult that I only used the word as my family used it, when I meant Okay, I'll go along with that. Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 15:03
  • 1
    Exactly the same range of meanings can apply with the best-known word on the planet, which by now is effectively "language-independent". If I say some new movie is OKAY, people will probably think I'm damning with faint praise, and that it's actually terrible. Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 15:32
  • The first definition in most on-line dictionaries (the most common meaning) seem to consistently support your idea that fine means 'perfectly' or 'excellent'. As a native speaker,. this does not agree with my canonical meaning as an adjective or adverb. The usual meaning for me is 'good enough'. It falls in the sequence "poor-fair-good-very good-excellent' somewhere between fair and good. Sadly dictionaries aren't very good at saying what the most likely usage a word has.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 16:41
  • How is this question opinion based? Is it an opinion that a word has different meanings in different contexts? If so, then any dictionary reference here is opinion based or any ELU question that has more than one answer is opinion based.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 23, 2022 at 18:58

2 Answers 2


Of course there are many shades of meaning. When they say it is a "fine wine" they do not mean it as a compromise.

Even if "fine" means "perfectly", it could still sometimes be used informally or ironically with lesser meanings.

When a schoolboy returns from school, and his parents say, "How was it?" then he may reply "Fine!" with the understanding: I do not want to talk about it. I still remember a bit on an American sitcom many years ago (Oliver Beene), where the narrator declares that the word "fine" is the greatest lie in the English language.


I think there are different reasons for using fine and not mean perfect, among which:

(1) Fear of doing damage to something:

The expression if it ain't broke, don't fix it, may explain why you would say "It's fine" "It's perfectly fine as is is."

Leave something alone; avoid attempting to correct, fix, or improve what is already sufficient (often with an implication that the attempted improvement is risky and might backfire).

I know it’s an ugly-looking antenna, but it gets the job done, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Wikitionary

As the definition says, you might be concerned that an attempt to "improve" something will go astray, or that although something is not appealing esthetically, it gets the job done, i.e. it works fine, and you're not interested in improving or replacing it.

(2) fine doesn't always mean perfect


That's fine with me m-w

Fine may be sufficiently good for the purpose. I might say "It looks fine to me" thinking it's actually not perfect, but "perfectly OK."

Fine is not the top grade for coin collectors and does not mean a coin is in perfect condition.

(3) Pragmatic reasons to "play up" condition

A dad says to his daughter "How about a new watch for your graduation gift?" The daughter replies "This one is fine, dad" trying to be modest (or perhaps coy, hinting that there is something else she'd prefer.)

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