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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

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Klaus Bung:
You can't say fairer than that

"You can't say fairer than that" is an expression which tends to be used by less educated people and in the pub or on the football ground. Therefore the learner should use it with caution (avoid it), unless he knows he is in the right environment. Read more below.

2010-08-29 You can't say fairer than that

In the same episode of the Archers (see 2010-08-28), husband and wife negotiate how to distribute their duties for the next two days, e.g. who will take the children to school or pick them up, who will go to a farming exhibition, who will milk the cows, etc. When the final proposal has been made by the husband, making sure each of them takes a share of the less pleasant tasks, the husband ends by saying: "You can't say fairer than that", which means simply "That's fair, isn't it", and encourages the other party to agree.

This is spoken by villagers somewhere between Birmingham and Oxford. I always associate this expression with cockneys, working class people, with the particular accent spoken in East London. Somehow, I personally would not use that phrase.

The following variants exist:

  • "You can't say fairer than that, can you?"
  • "You can't say any fairer than that," where the "any" is grammatically quite correct,
  • "You can't say no fairer than that," where the "no" leads to a double negation, which is grammatically incorrect but is often used in dialects and in the speech of uneducated people.

    If somebody of low standing says it by mistake, his educated partner marks him down immediately as uneducated, but perhaps doesn't expect anything better.

    If a person who is known to be educated uses this uneducated phrase, his partners know that he is making fun, that he is parodying an uneducated person, and perhaps even that he is showing his awareness of the fact that the original phrase, even without the double negation, belongs to uneducated classes and therefore should not be used in earnest by an educated person.

A typical and common example of double negation, commonly used, but grammatically incorrect, is: "He ain't no good" = He isn't no good = He is no good = He is bad.

I googled variations of the phrase and found a dictionary which describes the phrase as "informal", and that would perhaps account for my personal reservations about it.

I do NOT suggest that you should actually use this phrase (since all foreign learners of English want to be as close as possible to EDUCATED speakers of English), but it is useful if you understand such expressions and can distinguish between educated and less educated variants of English, between different registers (formal, less formal and informal, casual, slang) and styles of speaking English. Not everything that a native speaker of English says is worth imitating (and that's an understatement!). In plain English it means: Many things which native speakers of English say are not "good English" and should not be imitated by foreign learners of English.

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it