The 2014 film Whiplash tells the story of a young man who wants to be a great jazz musician. He has a music director who often says cruel things to him.
At one point in the film, the music director makes this statement to the young man:
There are no two words in the English language more harmful than "Good Job.''
Today's report will be much nicer than the lines of the film suggest.
We will not be learning about mean music directors (at least, not today). Instead, we will talk about two very common adjectives: the words "nice" and "good."
We will show you how Americans use these words in everyday speech. We will also show you how they are used in social situations.
But first, we have to give you a few definitions.
What are adjectives?
Adjectives are words that help describe or provide information about nouns.
Speakers generally use adjectives before a noun or after a non-action verb. Such verbs are sometimes called linking verbs.
In everyday speech, Americans often use the adjectives "good" and "nice." These words have a positive, but inexact meaning.
Here are two examples:
She is a good person.
He is a nice man.
In the examples, the adjectives "good" and "nice" come before a noun – the words "person" and "man."
These are pleasant, respectful ways to describe people.
Not very good and not very nice
Americans use the adjectives "good" and "nice" in other ways. They use them in a few common expressions. Terms like "not very nice" and "not very good" are generally used to describe people and their behavior.
These indirect expressions show an undesirable or bad opinion, but they have a softer meaning than direct speech does.
Consider our next example. Listen to this exchange that two students might have:
1: Have you finished your math homework?
2: No, I'm not very good at math.
1: Well, the teacher doesn't help much...
2: Yeah, he gave me an F on the last test. He told me my grade in front of the entire class… that wasn't very nice of him...
In this example, you heard two uses of not very + an adjective: not very good and not very nice.
Americans often use these expressions in place of direct language. Instead of saying "I'm not very good at mathematics," the student could have said, "I'm bad at math."
Instead of saying, "that wasn't very nice of him…," the other student could have said, "that was a mean thing to do."
The two speakers used "good" and "nice" in indirect expressions because they are considered to be more polite.
Social Uses of Good and Nice
Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are experts on English grammar. They say English speakers often use "good" and "nice" for social reasons. They use these words to give praise, express approval, and show appreciation. They also use them to show a positive reaction.
We are not able to give you examples of all of these uses. However, we can show you how Americans use them in a few situations.
#1 Good and nice – Expressions that give compliments on possessions or achievements.
Speakers often use "good" and "nice" in expressions that praise people for their possessions or successes.
A friend might comment on your new shoes by saying, for example, "Those are nice shoes. Where did you get them?"
Or a teacher might congratulate a student by saying, "You did a very good job on the test."
Think back to the film Whiplash. You heard the music director tell his student:
'There are no two words in the English language more harmful than "Good Job.''
By saying that the words 'good job' are harmful, the music director means that words of praise are bad. He believes that true artists will never become disheartened – no matter how mean people are to them!
#2 Showing approval for ideas
Another use of good is to show approval of an idea.
One speaker presents an idea and another speaker reacts in an approving way by saying, "Good idea," for example.
In an office, a supervisor might tell an employee, "That's a good idea. I like that."
Friends eating at a restaurant, for example, might say the following words:
1: Do you want dessert?
2: Sounds good to me!
Here, the second speaker is showing approval at the first speaker's idea – getting something to eat after the meal. This is an easy-going, friendly way to agree with another person.
What can you do?
The next time you are watching a film or listening to music in English, try to find examples of "good" and "nice." Ask yourself how the speakers use these words. Do they have a social use? Are they replacing direct speech that might be considered rude or uncultured?
Learning how to use good and nice can be difficult. But with hard work and effort, you will make good progress.
I'm John Russell.
And I'm Dorothy Gundy.
John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in the Story
cruel – n. causing or helping to cause suffering : terrible and unfair
appreciation – n. an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something : an ability to appreciate something
positive – adj. thinking about the good qualities of someone or something
inexact – adj. not completely correct or precise : not exact
polite – adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people
grammar – n. the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language
dessert – n. sweet food eaten after the main part of a meal
rude – adj. not having or showing concern or respect for the rights and feelings of other people : not polite