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Sometimes we can't just say something is bad. Perhaps we are being nice, or perhaps we are in a situation where negative comments are frowned upon. It could be that we are expected to give a positive response. Break out the faint praise!

To damn something with faint praise is to point out that something is mediocre or worse by praising it in ways that make its weaknesses clear. To say that a computer "looks sleek" as the primary point of praise would indicate that it is not that amazing as a computer, for example. To describe a person as punctual when asked about how they perform at work carries the heavy implication that this is their one valuable trait.

Related to many Insult Tropes; can be the result of a Compliment Backfire. May take the form of an Overly Narrow Superlative or a Trivially Obvious statement. See also So Okay It's Average and You Are a Credit to Your Race. Contrast with Stealth Insult, which also damns people through "praise" - in that case, though, the praise is illusionary rather than merely weak.

Examples


Advertising

  • Chevrolet runs a TV commercial where it shows all of the cars it makes that get better EPA estimated mileage than the equivalent Honda. At the end of the commercial, the announcer says, "There's one thing Honda makes that we can't compete with. It's even self-propelled," and the camera pans down to show a Honda lawnmower.
  • The jargon used by real-estate agents could be labeled as this: "cozy" means too small, "a good fixer-upper" means it's a dump, an "efficient kitchen" means it's too small to fit more than 1 person at a time, and so forth.
    • "That house is on fire!" "'Motivated seller'!"
    • French comedian Patrick Timsit had a field day with this.
    • The Dutch Comedy show did a similar sketch where two obnoxious yuppies demolished every selling point a real estate broker gave them ("Good access by car and public transport." "Highway through the back yard, foundations ruined by the subway line."), turning into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech. As they walked away satisfied, they decided they were going to buy it anyway.
    • Ow, My Sanity mocked this as well in this page and the next one.
    • Spoofed in Dilbert as well.
    • Fred Dagg on the subject: "Like so many other jobs in this wonderful society of ours, the basic function of the real estate agent is to increase the price of the article without actually producing anything, and as a result it has a lot to do with communication, terminology, and calling a spade a delightfully bucolic colonial winner facing north and offering a unique opportunity to the handyman."
    • Freakonomics features a list of good and less-good things estate agents describe houses as, for instance "Good neighborhood" means there are good houses nearby even if this isn't one. And if the description/ad ever includes an exclamation point that means you should avoid it like the plague (since that means there is literally nothing the agent could praise about the house and thus felt the need to add fake enthusiasm).
      • One book (I believe it was The Lying Ape took this on as well. It said an apartment described as "cosy" meant you could cook a meal, watch television and answer the front door without getting up from the toilet.
  • The Finnish government recently ran a study of the quality of all spectacles on sale in the country. The results concluded that they were all pretty much as good as one another. Newcomers to the market Specsavers ran a front-page advert congratulating a rival optical chain on being just as good as them. Specsavers' products are about a third of the price...
  • The DVD Verdict review for Battlefield Earth comments that "You know you have a stinker the size of Texas on your hands when the best review quote they could find for the box was '...great scene transitions and some of the better special effects of the year...'" The reviewer himself takes it even further in "The Evidence" part of his review (where praise of a film's good qualities normally goes) by going, "Umm...lemme see...the DVD itself is a picture disc. And there are end credits. See, I can spot the good in everything if I try."
  • A review quoted on the back cover of a Lensman novel by E.E. "Doc" Smith reads: "Fine for science fiction addicts." It's like an endorsement for methadone.
  • On page 3 of his comic "The Master Plan!", Johnny Turbo bursts out, "And they're giving you games that we already have! Why, we released Sherlock Holmes on CD almost two years ago!!" Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective isn't well remembered for being a Killer App, to put it mildly.


Anime and Manga

  • In Doujin Work, when Najimi shows Tsuyuri and Justice her first story, the first thing they compliment is the quality of the paper.


Comic Books

  • In a Josie and the Pussy Cats comic, all the Pussycats can say about a band that wanted to open for them was "Um... they have nice hair."
  • Knives Chau takes this route in Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, when telling the newly formed Shatterband what she thought of their first performance ("You guys have so much potential!"). Young Neil opts for Brutal Honesty instead.


Fan Fiction

 da cooger: "RONAN! I HAVE FAITH IN U! NOT THE XTIAN FATH DUH BUT THE GOOD FAT! U R STROG ND SO IS KAKSHI 2 I GUES"


Film

  • In Amadeus, this trope practically defines Mozart's relationship with Salieri.
  • In Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the only positive thing found in any review on one of Ed Wood's plays is "The soldiers' costumes are very realistic". The director, being Ed Wood, desperately tries to spin this into something positive later on: "Victor Crowley himself praised its realism".
  • The Agony Booth has coined the term The Empire Records Rule. Essentially, any movie that uses the music as a major selling point is assuredly terrible (rare exceptions like Clerks notwithstanding).
  • In Kill Bill, Bill, when asked for his opinion about the Bride's fiancee (whom he later more honestly describes as a "fucking jerk"), says "I like his hair."


Literature

  • Reversed by Dorothy L. Sayers in Murder Must Advertise. At one point, describing one character's comments on another, our detective protagonist Lord Peter uses the phrase "...praise him with faint damns".
  • In Maskerade, Agnes Nitt has "a wonderful personality and good hair".
  • In Jane Yolen's historical novel Queen's Own Fool, when Queen Mary is about to marry Darnley, she asks her friends' opinion of him. They don't want to upset her by pointing out that Darnley is a Jerkass, so they dodge the issue by praising his other qualities.
  • For lack of anything better to say, Jack Ryback from Mike Nelson's Death Rat! at one point earnestly praises his literary agent as "the most well-groomed man I've ever met."
  • At one point in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Sansa is unable to think of any honest compliments for young king Joffrey except that he is "comely". It's pretty much the only good thing about him.
    • The only honest compliment that Ned can give Robert about his reign was that he was a better king than his predecessor.


Live Action TV

  • 2010 Oscars- Steve Martin doesn't reciprocate the compliment that Alec Baldwin gives him when they introduce each other
  • In Thirty Rock, Liz compliments Jenna like this multiple times in the episode "The Rural Juror". Indeed, there are two sets of flashbacks in the episode, one from each of their perspectives (Liz's depicts her as attempting to be kind, while Jenna's emphasizes the insulting aspect.)
  • The main premise of an ICarly episode: Carly's webshow lands a sponsorship from a new type of wonder shoe. When the shoe fails to deliver, the team piles on "faint praise" to fulfill the contract without lying to their fans.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tapestry" Picard changing the past and not getting involved in the fight that caused him to get his heart replaced with an artificial one has caused him to become a Lieutenant Junior Grade paper pusher instead of a legendary starship captain. When he goes to Troi and Riker asking about his performance, they end up falling into this.

 Riker: You're a good worker, reliable... punctual.

    • In the episode "The Chase", Picard's old archaeology professor describes one of his papers as "informative", to which Picard himself replies "Damning with faint praise".
  • A Friends episode saw the characters argue over what faint praise they could offer Joey's awful T.V. show: "The lighting was O.K."
    • Another one had Ross promising to play rugby. Rachael reassured him that he was the toughest palaeontologist that she knew.
  • An episode of Black Books has Manny, suddenly missing his job at the bookshop, trying to find a nice thing to say about the place. He eventually concludes that there was no love, freedom, or largeness of heart, but "I was not contractually obligated to have sex with foreign businessmen, and that's not nothing!"
  • From an early episode of Frasier:

 Frasier: Niles, you're a good brother and a credit to the psychiatric profession.

Niles: You're a good brother too.

  • In an episode of Murphy Brown, Frank, Murphy and Jim attend the premier of a movie made by Corky's husband, and come out having utterly hated it. Frank then tells Murphy and Jim that in these circumstances he usually complements the movie's cinematography. Phil then walks in:

 Phil: So how was the movie?

Frank: The cinematography was excellent!

Phil:...that bad, huh?

  • A Father Ted example, when Ted asks Mrs Doyle if she considered him to be one of the best priests in the country (perhaps the best?) she says that he's probably the second best priest. This sends him into a Heroic BSOD.
    • To clarify: aside from various guests who come for an episode now and a again, the only two other priests in the land are a simpleminded manchild, and a senile, alcoholic pervert.
    • He takes no further consolation when Mrs. Doyle reveals she was thinking of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, pointing out that he's a Protestant.
  • Big Wolf on Campus episode "That Swamp Thing You Do!", possibly combined with Stealth Insult:

 Tommy: So, what did you think of my acting skills?

Merton: I think you combined the articulation of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the emotional range of Jean Claude Van Damme.

Tommy: Thanks, man!

  • In season one of Angel Angel and Wesley describe Cordelia's acting as having "good projection" and said that she had "taken the role and made it her own."
  • Of Oliver's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Slings and Arrows, the janitor diplomatically says, "The production values are very high." And they are; it's just a shame that half the actors are crap and the blocking means you can't actually hear the delivery of the good ones. In the audience, the minister of culture is listening to the hockey game on a portable radio - and in the tech booth, the stage manager and Oliver himself are watching it on TV.
  • The Thanksgiving episode of Dexter. The fact that the recipient of said damning catches on makes it one of the scariest scenes in the whole series.
  • In Game of Thrones Catelyn agrees for one of Lord Walder's daughters to marry her son Robb. She relays that Lord Walder said that several of them would suitable. When asked to describe them she starts "One was..." and stops, apparently unable to think of a compliment and settling for confirming she's "suitable".
  • On one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Ashley is afraid that she won't make any friends at her new school. Phil says that she has a great personality. Her response? "Great! Now I'm ugly."
  • Quite possibly used in Talent shows (e.g. The X Factor, American Idol) Use this as a way to appear positive, but in fact put down the contestant's possible vote. See this {www.sofabet.com website} for further analysis.


Mythology


Theater

  • The book Theatrical Anecdotes speaks of a producer who, when invited to a friend's show that really sucked, would congratulate them with the phrase, "My dear! Good is not the word!"
  • In Hairspray, Tracy's mother thanks Velma Von Tussle for letting Tracy appear on her TV show (she didn't, actually; the decision had been made without her and she protested vehemently). Velma diplomatically replies, "Well, Tracy has certainly... redefined our standards."
    • And if that wasn't enough, in the very same conversation she gets in a jab at Tracy's (rather obese) mom as well: "New dress? Yes, well. You'll stop traffic!"
  • In Ruddigore by Gilbert and Sullivan, Robin is talking to Rose about Richard, beginning by saying he'll "stand up for Dick through thick and thin!". However, every single thing Robin says about Richard, although masquerading as a compliment, is in fact nothing of the kind.
    • When Rose asks Robin whether Richard is like most sailors in that he is "worldly", he says, "And what then? Admit that Dick is not a steady character, and that when he's excited he uses language that would make your hair curl. Grant that?he does. It's the truth, and I'm not going to deny it. But look at his good qualities. He's as nimble as a pony, and his hornpipe is the talk of the Fleet!
    • When Rose asks if Richard drinks, Robin says, "Well, suppose he does, and I don't say he don't, for rum's his bane, and ever has been. He does drink?I won't deny it. But what of that? Look at his arms?tattooed to the shoulder!
    • Finally, when Rose wonders whether Richard would cheat on her while he was away on a sailing voyage, Robin says, "Granted--granted--and I don't say that Dick isn't as bad as any of 'em. You are, you know you are, you dog! a devil of a fellow--a regular out-and-out Lothario! But what then? You can't have everything, and a better hand at turning-in a dead-eye don't walk a deck! And what an accomplishment that is in a family man!
  • The Pirates of Penzance, when Frederic worries if Ruth is not as beautiful as other women are:

 Pirate King: Oh, Ruth is very well, very well indeed.

Samuel: Yes, there are the remains of a fine woman about Ruth.


Video Games

  • In Beautiful Katamari, if the King of All Cosmos isn't impressed with your rolling results, but still turns it into a star, he'll observe "At least it doesn't take up much space..." Of course, he doesn't shy away from straight insults, either...
  • In Assassin's Creed, the Rafik in charge of the Assassin Bureau in Damascus will tell Altair that he deeply envies him. Well, except for the fact that his arrogance got Altair stripped of his rank and equipment and got him stabbed in the gut, and every other Assassin hates him now....
  • In Dragon Age Origins, The Warden is offered a vote on how to dispense with a magical criminal responsible for poisoning a nobleman. The Warden can give a response like "He did agree to help us... though he didn't have much choice", to which the Arl calls the trope out by name.
  • Golden Sun Dark Dawn's character bios list Karis, an overbearing and easily-annoyed Tsundere, as the "most levelheaded" of the starting three characters. This speaks volumes (or not) about Matthew, the hero.
  • In Mass Effect 3 if you romanced Ashley in the first game and Tali in the second, the two of them lob these back-and-forth at each other just before a mission.

 Tali: Good to have you with us, Lieutenant-Commander Williams.

Ashley: You sure about that?

Tali: Of course. We're all adults here.

Ashley: Oh, yeah. Congratulations on getting your big-girl-name. [1]

Tali: Thanks. I'm glad you agreed to help Shepard this time. [2]

  • In Katawa Shoujo, when discussing grouping with Misha and Shizune, the former being the least academically gifted of all the main characters, Hisao says that Misha's handwriting is nice.


Web Comics

 Tabitha: So I'm a hideous old evil bitch from hell?

Flash: Um, I never said hideous.

Tabitha: Oh, that helps!

 GC: K4RK4T, H3S 4 J3RK!

GC: H3 H4S ST4BB3D YOU ON MOR3 TH4N ON3 OCC4S1ON!

CG: SOME OF THOSE STABBINGS WERE ACCIDENTAL!

GC: >8


CG: OK, WELL I KNOW FOR A FACT THE THIRD TIME WAS ACCIDENTAL.

  But unlike Gushers which serve many practical purposes like inducing vomiting and simulating the experience of eating plump insects, these things are totally useless!

Web Original

  • Strong Sad's character bio on an old character page (which can still be found in the museum) goes like this:

  Strong Sad has been disowned by his brothers Strong Bad and Mad. On the plus side, he has good handwriting!

 "...I'm making a positive comparison to Transformers 2. That's like making a positive comparison to backne."

 Snob: "Well, at least it's not CG gore..." [winces visibly] "What a fucking sad state we're in, when modern-day computer-infested horror films could learn something from THE VIOLENT SHIT MOVIES!"

  • More from the TGWTG files, from The Nostalgia Critic review of Steel when describing the casting choice of Shaquille O'Neal:

 Critic: "But give him some credit, though. ...He's tall."

  • Three words: "Cool story bro". If this is the only compliment you receive regarding whatever it's you're trying to pitch to your audience, then you've failed entirely.
  • The Doctor Horribles Sing Along Blog song "So They Say" features numerous characters praising Captain Hammer and his relationship with Penny. When she gets a line, however, she merely calls him "pretty okay" and is clearly distracted by hopes that her friend Billy will show up.
  • In Moviebob's review of Rob Zombie's Halloween II, he says that it's the best Halloween film since John Carpenter's original, though he admits that, given the standards of all the Halloween movies released in between, that's not saying much. Subverted Trope in that he enjoyed the film anyway in spite of its flaws.
  • In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lizzie challenges her incredibly kind sister Jane to say something nice about Darcy. The only thing she can give? "He's so...ah. Eeh. He's um- no, no no....He's tall."

  Lizzie: Okay! For the record, when the nicest thing Jane Bennet has to say about you is "tall", you have personality problems.


Western Animation

  • Parodied in The Emperors New Groove, where Kuzco insults a row of girls with offhand remarks, most of which are directly insulting, but to the final one he says, in very sarcastic tones, "Let me guess, you have a great personality?". Even better is the fact that they all look identical.
    • The fact that the other girls have to physically restrain her to keep her from attacking Kuzco shows that she's well aware it wasn't a compliment.
  • Used a bit on The Simpsons. In one episode, after showing his friends and family the cartoon he's voice acting for, Homer's guests all leave muttering incoherently and Moe says "You should be very proud, Homer... you have a wonderful home."
    • Also, when Marge becomes a real estate agent, Lionel Hutz sits her down to teach her the jargon.

 Hutz: There's (ominous) "The Truth", and there's (smiling) "The truth!" Lemme show you. (opens a brochure)

Marge: It's awfully small.

Hutz: I'd say it's awfully ... cozy.

Marge: That's dilapidated.

Hutz: Rustic.

Marge: That house is on fire!

Hutz: Motivated seller!

    • In another bit, Marge mentions qualities she likes in Homer and Lisa then says, I like Bart's... I like Bart!
  • In a Family Guy episode, one of Peter's cutoff gags had Ringo Starr showing the rest of The Beatles a song he had just written. Their response? "Very good! We'll put this right on the fridge, right here where everyone can see it."
    • When Brian made Stewie say something nice about Diablo Cody, he said, "I . . . envy the tattoo artist who had that huge canvas of arm fat to work with."
  • In Disney's Aladdin, an unintentional example of this nearly trips up our hero.

 Aladdin: Princess Jasmine, you're very...um...

Genie: (whispering suggestions in his ear) Wonderful! Magnificent! Glorious!... Punctual!

Aladdin: (blurts) Punctual!

Princess Jasmine: (bewildered) Punctual?

Genie: Sorry.

Aladdin: Uh...uhh...beautiful!

Genie: Nice recovery.

 Vlad: Well?

Sophie: Well, she answered every question.

  • On one episode of Total Drama World Tour, Beth has to come up with a haiku highlighting one of Heather's positive attributes. The first line is "Heather has ten toes," and the rest summarizes how that makes swimming easier.
  • The Spectacular Spider-Man subverts this when Aunt May tries to set Peter up with Mary Jane Watson, saying she has "a wonderful personality." Peter shudders, quite certain it means she's ugly, and the phrase "wonderful personality" becomes a Running Gag. Then Peter actually meets her.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: Done accidentally by Aang in 'The Cave of Two Lovers'. He and Katara aren't sure how to get out of a labyrinth, and Katara suggests that, based on the story they've read, maybe they're supposed to kiss. When Katara tries to play it cool, Aang takes it too far, acting like he wouldn't want to kiss her at all. He tries to save it by telling Katara that he'd rather kiss her than die, which he thinks is a compliment. Katara...doesn't.
  • My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic sees this happen in "Lesson Zero". Twilight Sparkle, (literally) madly desperate to find a friendship problem for her weekly report to Princess Celestia, tries to make a problem by getting the Cutie Mark Crusaders to fight over her favorite childhood toy, Smarty Pants. The Crusaders aren't interested in the ratty old doll, however, but are trying to be polite about it. When pressed to compliment it, the only thing Sweetie Belle can come up with is "Um, I really like her... mane?"
    • Happens again in Read it and Weep, where the only thing Rarity can think of to comfort the just-hospitalized Rainbow Dash is that the hospital gowns match the curtains.
  • Daria:

  Jake: (on Daria's school photo) Wow, that's really sharp focus!

    • Also in the episode "Too Cute": everybody is gushing about a minor character's new nose job, which Quinn politely says is "cute." Everybody acts as though this minor praise is a tremendous insult.


Real Life

  • People who read letters of recommendation will often wonder why certain aspects of an individual were praised, while others were not mentioned. This is seen as grasping at straws, and can kill an application.
    • Dave Barry pointed this out once, saying that you can write a positive recommendation for anyone: "Mr. Hitler has always kept his uniform very neat."
      • More than true in Germany, where you simply are not allowed to use negative comments and traits in them - even if said employee stole half your money and hit everybody on the head. Of course this led to a whole dictionary of "when X is praised, Y is not good". "Punctual" of course is a classic, "always endeavoring" employees are the worst of the bunch (willing, but certainly not able in the least). Take that and a few code words for inacceptable behavior (mentioning the "working athmosphere" means the employee is a drunkard and/or a bully and/or a molester) and inexperienced bosses can really doom their former employees with what was meant to be praise.
  • Employees are generally not allowed to criticize product; therefore, if a restaurant or retail worker tells you a dish or item is "popular," what they mean is "it's terrible and you should avoid it at all costs." "Popular" is honestly the nicest thing they can say about it.
    • Watch out also for "different" or "unusual".
  • A representative of the Vatican, in response to Stephen Hawking claiming God was not needed to explain the universe's genesis: "Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist and when it comes to theology I can say he's a brilliant physicist."
  • Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondent's Dinner.
  • Have you ever been set up with someone with a "nice personality", or who is "funny"?
    • If they're described as beautiful and funny, you're fine. If you ask if they're good looking and get replied that they're funny, you're about to hit this trope like a brick wall.
  • Websites and magazines that feature professional video game reviews may have this since they're generally required to list good traits of games, and when the game in question is a real stinker the reviewer may resort to this, frequently combined with Sarcasm Mode. The Australian magazine Hyper once listed the "good" aspects of a game thus: it came with a box and was therefore easily disposable.
  • The polite thing to say when confronted with an ugly baby? "What a baby!"
    • Or in the U.S. South: "Bless her heart!"
      • As an advertisement once said, in the South, saying "Bless your heart," after someone has an accident is basically a polite way of saying "You dumbass."
    • Or "That baby's just as [cute/sweet/lovely] as it can be!"
  • The reason that "compliments" like "She's really good for a black person" are so loaded with Unfortunate Implications is because they come across like this.
  • Abraham Lincoln reportedly asked Thaddeus Stevens about the honesty of a man being considered for a cabinet position. Stevens replied that "I do not believe he would steal a red hot stove."
  • "Nice" is also a word which doesn't mean much when complimenting someone. Nice is the way people say someone is 'meh'. Lets say if the most memorable enduring part of them is "nice" they aren't that special.
    • There's a modern proverb in german that goes "Nice is the little brother of shitty".
  • One from this wiki: Angelspit's page describes them, among other things, as 'one of Australia's most well-known industrial bands'. This is true. However, Australia doesn't have many industrial bands, so it's not like there's much to stand out against...
  • In real estate, you'll often see houses ranked as "good" or "excellent". While that sounds nice, many real estate agents fail to tell the buyers or sellers that on their scale of praise, those two are the worst. The best is often something like "diamond".

Notes

  1. The last time Ashley and Tali talked to each other, Tali was still on her pilgrimage, and therefore hadn't gotten her adult name yet.
  2. Ashley gave Shepard one hell of a calling out in the second game for working with Cerberus, and refused to join his squad because of it. Tali seems to think that had something to do with him dumping her.
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