I often stumble over the fact that in English, apparently, we imply the reverse when we negate a positive. For example,

That wasn't very good. [⇒ That was bad.]
That wasn't bad. [⇒ That was good.]

Sometimes I wish to convey a more literal meaning of "That was not very good.", i.e.: "That wasn't very good, but it almost was." (I think there are a couple more contexts in which this problem has arisen, but I can't think of them at the moment.)

Is there a proper way to do this? Or a more efficient way than explicitly outlining the precise measurement, as in "That was better than good, but not quite very good."?

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    This is called litotes (and is not unique to English at all). – RegDwigнt May 19 '12 at 13:22
  • Watch out for 'damning with faint praise'. – Mitch May 19 '12 at 20:53
  • Saying "wasn't bad" doesn't imply something was good. It's a passive expression used to communicate mediocrity. As a teacher, if I say "your paper wasn't bad," it means you still need to work on it. – Mrs. P May 19 '12 at 20:56
  • @Mrs.P - It can have a positive implication, though, depending on the context and the intonation. If someone is watching a, for example, piano performance, and says "That wasn't bad" with a falling intonation on "bad", that suggests they think it was good. If they use a falling and then rising intonation, it suggests they thought it needs improvement. – Lou Apr 6 '14 at 9:39

I don't generally think of good and very good as being different enough that I would want describe something as being between them in quality. That being said, you could achieve this effect by first stating the baseline as a fact, and then positing that it approached the next echelon, e.g.

That was good; almost very good.

You should be careful, though, because being finicky with a description in this way might come off as sarcastic.

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    I think "That was almost very good" is an efficient solution for writing. In spoken language you can convey the same message with the original expression "That was not very good" by placing emphasis on the very. – Shoe May 19 '12 at 7:02
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    @Shoe I agree (if you made your comment an answer, I would upvote it). I would caution non-native speakers on saying, "That was not very good," though, because if the stress is even a little off, the whole meaning is changed. – Cameron May 19 '12 at 7:33
  • you are right about the difficulty for non-native speakers of getting the prosody right in cases such as this. (I have upvoted your answer; that is almost very good enough for me.) – Shoe May 19 '12 at 10:02

Is there an "efficient" way to convey that sentiment? Normally, I would advise, "just choose the proper word," but you've hit on an elusive area that's a bit hard to describe in English, especially in just one word.

I can think of lots of ways to describe something that is "good": acceptable, decent, fair, adequate, satisfactory. I can also think of several ways to describe something "very good": excellent, exceptional, superb, first-rate, fantastic. But you're asking for a word to describe something better than the first group of words, yet not quite as good as the second – something that seems to fall into a no-man's land of the thesaurus.

One could say:

I'd give it a B+.

(Even though your question asked for something other than "explicitly outlining the precise measurement," I'm offering that suggestion anyhow, because I've often heard those words used to express exactly what you're asking for: better than good, but not quite excellent.)

As an example, from a NY Times headline: Obama Gives Himself a 'Solid B-Plus'


The food was good


The food was not bad

mean slightly different things.

I would use the latter to mean that the food was acceptable and reserve the former for the case when I really enjoyed it.

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    It also depends on the intonation, in BrE at least. If you say "That was not bad!" with a gleeful voice then you mean it was good, perhaps even very good, certainly better than expected. If you say "That was not bad." with a resigned tone then you're saying it was average, not as good as you'd hoped. – Matt E. Эллен May 19 '12 at 12:02
  • Also, if the tone is of resignation, then the phrase is likely to be shortened to "That wasn't bad." – Matt E. Эллен May 19 '12 at 12:08

As you say, negating the concept actually puts it near to, but not quite at the opposite. So "that wasn't very good" effectively says "that almost rose to the level of being outright bad".

So I think the best way to say "that almost made it to "good", but not quite." would be to instead negate the opposite:

"that wasn't bad".

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