“beautiful” and “pretty”

Both words are normally used to refer to the pleasing appearance of the face — usually that of women. Beautiful is the stronger word of the two. When you say that something is “beautiful” what you mean is that it is very close to perfection — at least according to the person looking at the object. Remember, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Beauty is subjective, what is considered beautiful in one culture may not be considered beautiful in another. One can use the word “beautiful” to talk about things that can be seen. For example, you can refer a woman’s face as being beautiful, a house as being beautiful, and a scene as being beautiful. In fact, you can even use the word with things that cannot be seen. For example, you can talk about a “beautiful plan” or a “beautiful smell”.

The word “pretty”, on the other hand, is not as complimentary as beautiful. When you refer to a woman as being “pretty” what you mean is that she is attractive; she is graceful and full of life, but lacks the perfection. She doesn’t have the qualities to make her beautiful. Pretty is seldom used with people or objects that are big; the word is usually restricted to objects that are small. You cannot refer a 30-storey building as being a “pretty building”. You can talk about a “pretty house” or “pretty shoes”, but not a pretty building. Similarly, a woman who is big built can be “beautiful”, but not “pretty”. The word “pretty” suggests that the person or object is pleasant to look at, but not necessarily impressive.

S. UPENDRAN,  The Hindu- ‘Know Your English’ Series, March 7, 2005

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2 thoughts on ““beautiful” and “pretty”

  1. This reminds me of an occasion decades back when I was employed in Ashok Leyland. I used the words, “pretty old” to describe a person, and he reacted saying that how come an old man could be pretty! I really didn’t know how to respond to his question! Even now, I’m not sure whether it is OK to say, “pretty old”. Could someone clarify, please?

    • I think the word ‘pretty’ has a different meaning here. It means ‘very’ in the above context. It may also mean ‘to some extent’. Its very common to use ‘pretty’ in similar contexts. For example, ‘pretty good’, ‘pretty impressive’, ‘pretty bad’ etc.

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