“There will be a packet to Calais, to-morrow, drawer?”
“Yes, sir, if the weather holds and the wind sets tolerable fair. The tide will serve pretty nicely at about two in the afternoon, sir. Bed, sir?”

The preceding passage is from Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities Chapter 4. I wonder how to parse tolerable. I think it is used as an adverb rather than an adjective. Tolerable should be tolerably. There is no adverbial form of tolerable as "tolerable". It should have been tolerably". Again the use of "fair" in the above sentence is also adverbial. If tolerable is to qualify fair, then it should have been an adverb. Please explain.

  • 4
    The character is speaking the local dialect rather than standard English. You are right. In standard English he should have said tolerably, but Dickens is putting it how he thinks a Kentish boatman would say it.
    – davidlol
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 6:31
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    I'm not sure that the use of "fair" in the above sentence is also adverbial. Consider: "I woke up grumpy." "I went to sleep exhausted." "The wind sets fair." In each case, the last word functions as a predicate adjective. (I'm only speculating; I'm not a sailor and don't even know exactly what "sets" means here.) Commented May 5, 2023 at 7:02
  • 3
    Please fix the author's name: Dickens, with an s. Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 15:52
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    set fair: “To develop weather that is clear and pleasant.” (Aside: The OED notes: “set fair is usually marked on English barometers at the point indicating that the height of the mercury is 30½ inches.” Here’s a picture. Commented May 5, 2023 at 18:41

4 Answers 4


The word tolerable here is used as an adverb (i.e. it means "tolerably").

Or reasonably, if you will: " ... and the wind sets reasonably fair."

This was a common practice in literary English up until fairly recently - by historical standards, anyway.

You'll find a ton of adverbs pretending to be adjectives in William Shakespeare's plays (to pick a name at random ... "indifferent honest," etc.)

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    "I'm good" vs. "I'm well". It's not just ancient history.
    – fectin
    Commented May 6, 2023 at 21:52
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    @fectin: True. But - did you expect me to write an entire essay on the subject? I was tempted to, I admit, but some things are better left unsaid.
    – Ricky
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 0:09
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    it's a great answer! My quibble was only about whether this is strictly archaic, which might, possibly, cause some other minor trip-up.
    – fectin
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 23:22

This phrase

the wind is fair

means that the wind is favourable. Saying

the wind is set fair

means that it is reliably so. It would be tricky to get a sailing ship out of harbour if the wind is backing, veering, or gusty. It has nothing to do with how pleasant the weather might be – it is a matter of practicality.

In the posted sentence

the wind sets tolerable fair

the verb is intransitive, and Cambridge Dictionary gives these examples

When a broken bone sets, it heals in a particular position.
If a liquid or soft material sets, it becomes firm or hard.

As mentioned elsewhere with tolerable Dickens has the character speaking in the vernacular.


set verb (cause a condition)
to cause someone or something to be in a particular condition, or to begin doing something

fair adjective
(of weather) pleasant and dry:
Fair weather was forecast for the following day.

When the weather sets fair, it sets (itself) in a pleasant condition for the following period. More specifically, a fair wind is a favourable wind for sailing. Here is M-W:

Merriam Webster
favorable to a ship's course

The character is speaking of fair weather or, in this case, of tolerable fair weather.

Hence, in the same way that the weather sets (itself) fair, he says it sets (itself) tolerable fair.

From this perspective, tolerable fair is an adjectival phrase. The character might perhaps have said tolerable and fair but is not guilty of misrepresenting an adverb.

  • The only intransitive entry in that definition of "set" seems to require a to-infinitive. (It gives the example "I set to work right away.") This sentence apparently uses "set" intransitively but without a to-infinitive. Commented May 5, 2023 at 7:12
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    A fair wind is one blowing in the right direction for the intended voyage. In the era of sailing ships, the possibility of putting to sea at all might depend on this. Commented May 5, 2023 at 7:52
  • @Agreed. A fair wind may be favourable as well as pleasant in some more general sense. I have edited.
    – Anton
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 10:27
  • @MarcInManhattan Google ngram brings up many instances of "weather set fair"; with set used intransitively; too many to quote.
    – Anton
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 10:36
  • @Anton it has nothing to do with pleasant weather (it might even be raining) and everything to do with the safe and predictable handling of the ship. As with sailing on the tide at 2 pm, it might be more pleasant to sail at 10 am and arrive in time for supper, but these constraints are necessities. Commented May 5, 2023 at 13:36

The OED has tolerable used as an adverb both attributively and predicatively. Attributively it means the same thing as tolerably, while predicatively it means tolerably well referring to being of tolerable health.

They include this note, with the italics in the original:

After 1750 chiefly in inferior writers and dialect.

They also provide such citations as:

  • 1673 Remarques on Humours of Town 40
    If you can but discourse tollerable of good Wine.
  • 1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 114. ⁋1
    I observed a Person of a tolerable good Aspect.
  • 1796 E. Parsons Myst. Warning III. 142
    They halted at a tolerable large hamlet.
  • 1850 H. C. Watson Camp-fires Revol. 63
    We had got along thus far tolerable well.
  • 1873 J. H. Beadle Undevel. West x. 178
    If the ‘later rain’ has not put in an appearance, they are, in local phrase, ‘tolerable dry’.
  • 1884 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Huckleberry Finn i. 19
    Her sister, Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on.

As neither Dickens nor Twain was an inferior writer, these uses therefore represent ‘rustic’ or ‘dialect’ speech.

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