Usage of pretty, quite, rather, fairly

Well, these words drive me mad. I don’t know which to choose in these sentence:

  1. She is … stupid, but … good-looking.
    a. quite/ fairly
    b. rather/ fairly
    c. rather/ pretty
    d. pretty/ rather
  2. My rommate is feeling … better today.
    a. pretty
    b. fairly
    c. rather
    d. quite
  3. My patience was … well-exhausted.
    a. pretty
    b. rather
    c. quite
    d. fairly
  4. The book is … too difficult for a child of five to read.
    a. quite
    b. fairly
    c. rather
    d. all are correct
  5. He … understands others.
    a. rather
    b. very
    c. fairly
    d. quite
    And by the way, can you explain the difference of these word’s usage?
    Thank you very much.

How about giving them a try first, Sophie?

Ok, I’ll try first.
I think with comparative adjective (better) and “too” (2,4), we should use “rather”. So the answers for 2 and 4 are c.
With number 5, according to me, the most suitable one is d.
Number 3: a. Because “pretty well” sounds familiar and consonant (intuition).
I have no idea for number 1.
Now I think I need your help.


  1. All of these answers can be considered correct. The only qualification that I can see is that register is sometimes mixed: ‘pretty’ is pretty casual, while 'rather’ is fairly formal.

  2. You are right.

  3. My patience was … well exhausted.-- I agree with you here too, though I can’t explain why D does not work as well.

  4. You are right.

  5. Yes, only D works here. I think that ‘quite’ is the only adverb in the list that modifies verbs.

All in all, a rather confusing test; I am quite tired of thinking about it. I’m fairly sure that the author is not acquainted with American English, which uses ‘pretty’ pretty much all the time.

But could you clarify some problems? I don’t understand what do you mean by: “I’m fairly sure that the author is not acquainted with American English, which uses ‘pretty’ pretty much all the time.”?

I feel that the 1st question has no wrong answers-- but I presume that the author did not. Only ‘pretty’ among the 4 words is casual but common in AmE, so I’m guessing that the author thought ‘pretty’ inappropriate. But it is only a guess.

I’ve got it. Thanks a lot.
So how can we distinguish these words? What’s the difference between them?

There is no simple answer-- at least, not one that I can give you. I have already said that regional use may differ; this is certainly true of ‘quite’. They also fit differently into sentences.

Here are some example sentences showing the variety of uses:

a. pretty

This accident will cost him a pretty sum.
This is a pretty mess!
Her work was pretty good.
The wind blew pretty hard.

b. fairly

a fairly heavy rain.
He slipped off the roof and fairly broke his neck.
The wheels fairly spun.

c. rather

I rather thought you would regret it.
Is the book worth reading? Rather!
It’s rather cold.
It was rather a disaster.

d. quite

  1. completely, wholly, or entirely: quite the reverse; not quite finished.
  2. actually, really, or truly: quite a sudden change.
  3. to a considerable extent or degree: quite small; quite objectionable.

There should be passages on various of these words in your grammar book and at on-line grammar sites.