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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL


© 2011 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you WHAT to learn, IDYLL (R) shows you HOW to learn it.

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Klaus Bung:
If you are pleased, I am satisfied

Which expression conveys the greater praise: (1) "I'm satisfied with your work", or (2) "I'm pleased with your work."? The answer is not obvious, not even for native speakers of English. The value of these expressions depends on context. who speaks or writes, and to whom, how do these experessions fit into the whole range of expressions available for approval and disapproval. This essay examines some of these possibilities and gives examples from English literature, in which it is easy to examine the context and therefore the varying meaning of these expressions.

Read more ...

2011-10-04 If you are pleased, I am satisfied

In a Forum for students of English the following question was asked:

What is the difference if my boss said
(1) "I'm satisfied with your work", or
(2) "I'm pleased with your work."
Which expression conveys the greater praise?

My initial reply was as follows:

In practice the two expressions are equivalent, they are equally good. Most English people would not puzzle whether one is better than the other. Also the boss will not think very hard whether he should say one or the other. It does not matter, especially in speech. He just wants to praise you.

However, if you look closely at the origin of the two expressions, you can see a difference.

(1) means that you have done ENOUGH, i.e. that you have done your duty. Latin: satis = enough. "-fied" comes from Latin facere = to make/to do. "satisfied" therefore originally meant: you have "done enough". So this is an objective expression: either you have done enough (done your duty, done what can be expected) or you have not done enough. It is subjective only inasmuch as the boss decides whether you have done enough.

(2) "pleased" comes from Latin "placere" (to make someone happy). So this word is more subjective and it has some emotion in it. In (1) the boss tells you that you have done enough, in (2) he tells you that he is happy with you. (2) is therefore warmer, and you can be quite pleased with yourself if the boss says he is pleased with you.

One member of the group then confidently concluded that (2) is stronger and preferable to (1). That confidence made me uneasy, and I decided to undermine my previous simple suggestions. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" (Alexander Pope, 1688-1744), i.e. the person with little knowledge may overestimate the extent of his knowledge and make mistakes because he does not know enough, or rather because HE DOES NOT KNOW that he does not know enough. He is not aware of his own ignorance.

More thorough discussion

The exact meaning of these and thousands of other words and expressions depends not only on the words themselves (as they appear on screen or paper), but on many other factors: e.g. spoken or written; who speaks/writes; to whom; in what context, with what intonation !!!, for what purpose, etc etc.

Example: There is a difference between the style of a testimonial ("To whom it may concern") and social letter, or something that is spoken face to face. The boss is not obliged to say "pleased" if he only wants to say "satisfied", but he can say "satisfied" in such a way that it means much more than "pleased".

All this has to be taken into consideration to decide what is meant. The learner cannot learn this through rules, but only through experience of many examples, i.e. he has to listen to the radio (learn to understand spoken English; see the TRAM procedure on the Idyll website) and read a lot, and then try to interpret each example as best he can, keeping the context in mind.


Let me now illustrate how little you can rely on the literal meaning of the words being spoken. If you are dealing with British English, you also have to take understatement into consideration, something that exists in many languages but is extremely pronounced in British (but less in American) English.

In certain society, if you say something outrageously foolish or boring, your hostess (e.g. Lady Windermere) might say, in her inimitable accent: "How very interesting!" That is enough to cut you down. "How very interesting!" often (but not always!) means the very opposite of "Oh, that's interesting". Read Oscar Wilde and Shaw for examples.


If you ask an American: "How are you?" and he has just made a deal for a million dollars, he will say: "I am fantastic". If you ask an Englishman who has just struck a deal for a million pounds (which is a million dollars and a half), "How are you?", he will express his extreme delight by saying: "Not too bad, not bad at all", and he will nod with satisfaction and add pensively, "yes, really, not bad". Foreigners don't understand that at all, but I hear dozens of examples of this kind every day, on the radio, on the phone, from people I meet, etc. A rescue helicopter pilot returns from a terrible storm and is interviewed on the radio. He says, "It was a bit nippy" (= slight breeze). Somebody who has been fighting in terrible battles in Libya will say afterwards: "It wasn't exactly a holiday" or "It wasn't easy" (he means: "It was terrible").


Now imagine that I am a violin student, and Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), the greatest British violinist ever, heard me play. Someone asks Menuhin: "What do you think of this student's playing". Menuhin is silent for a long time, then nods, silently, several times, then says slowly in a low voice: "Well, well, not bad, not bad at all". Coming from Menuhin, in the British context, this is enormous praise.

If you only judged the words: "Not bad at all", if seems to be less than "satisfactory". But coming from Menuhin after long thought it is more than "pleased". Moreover Menuhin might not even be pleased. His emotions do not matter. He is making an objective judgement.

Now look at this example from a novel. A professor is so impressed with the design of certain luxurious dishes, that he wants to know where they have been bought. He expresses his approval NOT by saying: "How beautiful!" but by saying: "These are not bad—really not bad at all."

Notice also that the professor says "pick them up" which is a colloquial and slight alternative for saying "buy them" (also a kind of understatement). In the same vein, English people often say "the fiddle" a belittling alternative for the proper word "the violin".

ewer = jug

quote starts

Before he could bring himself to answer the question, the attendants had noiselessly removed the tray and stool, and were handing round rosewater in a silver ewer and basin, the character of which, luckily or otherwise, turned the Professor's inquisitiveness into a different channel.

"These are not bad - really not bad at all," he said, inspecting the design. "Where did you manage to pick them up?"

"I didn't," said Horace; "they're provided by the - the person who supplies the dinner."

"Can you give me his address?" said the Professor, scenting a bargain; "because really, you know, these things are probably antiques - much too good to be used for business purposes."

quote ends

(from F Anstey: "The Brass Bottle", 1900)

Now consider an invented example based on a true incident. I tell the story as best I remember it. The details may be incorrect, but in essence it is true. And the linguistic point I am making is absolutely true to life.

Some years ago, the son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 18 years, and celebrating either his birthday or perhaps the end of his school career, went out with his friends in the West End of London. They visited bars and clubs and did what young people do.

In the morning, the British nation heard on the radio and read in the newspapers that the son of the Prime Minister had been found (and picked up) drunk as a Lord (idiom) or drunk as a newt (idiom), lying face down somewhere in Leicester Square (pronounced "lester square") in central London and taken to a police station or to the Prime Minister's residence.

You can imagine Mr Blair's embarrassment. Mr Blair will have been furious. In the morning (so I imagine the scene since I was not present), Mr Blair gave his son a dressing down (= I told him off). Mr Blair was furious, but this is how he might have expressed his fury: "So, son, what do you think you have been doing? Are you proud of your behaviour? I am not impressed, not impressed at all!"

This is a strong expression of disapproval. English people understand it and feel it. You do not have to call them idiots, bastards, crooks, liars, to make them feel that you are upset.

You also have to consider, and explore, the countless alternatives available for expressing satisfaction. It will be almost impossible to grade these. The original question tried to grade (1) and (2).


  • I am satisfied.
  • I am very satisfied.
  • I am quite satisfied.
  • I am extremely satisfied.
  • I am fairly satisfied.

"extremely satisfied" will be stronger, I suppose, than several shades of "pleased", even though "satisfied" on its own may be considered less strong than "pleased".

  • I am very pleased
  • I am very happy
  • I am quite pleased
  • I am extremely pleased
  • I am fairly pleased

Also consider synomyms like:

  • I am content with your work
  • I am delighted by your success
  • I am over the moon
  • I am amazed by your progress
  • Your work was fantastic.
  • I am impressed.
  • I am really impressed
  • I am very impressed.


I have also checked on a variety of meanings / usages of "satisfied" in English literature. Many quite distinct meanings came up in the sample, some of which had nothing to do with "approval".

"The BBC are satisfied that this story is true." ( = The BBC are convinced ...)

"The BBC satisfied themselves that ..." ( = they made investigations and are now convinced that they have a true story).

Check-list satisfaction

Imagine a job advertisement:

Applicants must be male,
aged above 30 and below 50,
British citizens,
height 1.85m or above,
at least 2 GCE 'A'-levels and 3 'O'-levels,
and speak with a Scottish accent.

Applicants which do not satisfy these criteria need not apply.

The applicants here have to satisfy certain criteria (objectively), they do not have to "please" the boss or prospective employer. "Satisfying" here is entirely objective, not emotional. It is not less than "pleasing" someone. In a way, it is more than "pleasing". It is the "sine qua non" (the absolute essentials, the minimum) before the employer will even look at you. Can you tick all the boxes of the check-list or can't you? If you can tick all boxes, i.e. if you satisfy these criteria, you can start selling yourself to the employer. Otherwise you haven't got a cat's chance in hell.

Examples from one novel

I will now give some real examples, all taken from just one book: Henry James: "The American".


Newman is the name of the young American in the novel.

"My mother is a great judge of these matters," said Valentin to Newman. "If you have satisfied her, it is a triumph."

Note from this example that if the judge is very demanding or critical, then simply satisfying the judge can be A TRIUMPH. This proves my point about Yehudi Menuhin.

Wearied as he was he found the picture entertaining; it had an illusion for him; it satisfied his conception, which was ambitious, of what a splendid banquet should be.

Christopher Newman's sole aim in life had been to make money; what he had been placed in the world for was, to his own perception, simply to wrest a fortune, the bigger the better, from defiant opportunity. This idea completely filled his horizon and satisfied his imagination.

"I see you have a taste for splendor."

Newman hesitated a little; and then, "I honestly believe I have!" he said.

"And I suppose you have already looked about you a good deal."

"A good deal, according to opportunity."

"And you have seen nothing that satisfied you?"

"No," said Newman, half reluctantly, "I am bound to say in honesty that I have seen nothing that really satisfied me."

"You remind me of the heroes of the French romantic poets, Rolla and Fortunio and all those other insatiable gentlemen for whom nothing in this world was handsome enough. But I see you are in earnest, and I should like to help you."

end of quote

Note about Rolla

Rolla refers to a poem by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) and a painting by Henri Gervex based on it. Wikipedia states: "Henri Gervex's 1878 painting Rolla was based on a poem by de Musset. It was rejected by the jury of the Salon de Paris for immorality, since it depicted a scene from the poem of a naked prostitute after having sex with her client - but the controversy helped Gervex's career."



The following note is taken from the website of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

quote starts

Gervex found his inspiration in a long poem by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), published in 1833. The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery. Rolla is seen here ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.

If the scene was judged indecent, it was not because of Marie's nudity, which in no way differs from the canonic nudes of the time. The attention of contemporaries rather turned to the still life constituted by a gown, a garter, and a hastily undone corset covered with a top hat. Gervex might have been advised by Degas to put "a corset on the floor" so that the spectator may know this woman "is not a model". Indeed, this disposition and the nature of the clothes clearly indicate Marie's consent and her status as a prostitute. Moreover, the walking stick emerging from the garments acts as a metaphor for sexual intercourse.

After its exclusion from the Salon, Rolla was exhibited for three months in the gallery of a Parisian art dealer. The scandal, largely echoed by newspapers, attracted large crowds. Many years later, in interviews published in 1924, Gervex recalled the pleasure he had in seeing the "uninterrupted procession of visitors", although it is unknown whether he had anticipated the reaction of the authorities and willingly provoked the scandal.

quote ends

Note about Fortunio

Fortunio is a character from Musset's comedy "Le Chandelier" (The Candlestick). An opera by André Messager is based on this character, and a summary of Fortunio's adventures in the bedroom of his beloved can be found on the opera website:

Besides, he had no taste for upholstery; he had even no very exquisite sense of comfort or convenience. He had a relish for luxury and splendor, but it was satisfied by rather gross contrivances. He scarcely knew a hard chair from a soft one, and he possessed a talent for stretching his legs which quite dispensed with adventitious facilities. His idea of comfort was to inhabit very large rooms, have a great many of them, and be conscious of their possessing a number of patented mechanical devices - half of which he should never have occasion to use. The apartments should be light and brilliant and lofty; he had once said that he liked rooms in which you wanted to keep your hat on. For the rest, he was satisfied with the assurance of any respectable person that everything was "handsome."

"There are a great many reasons why I should not marry," she said, "more than I can explain to you. As for my happiness, I am very happy. Your offer seems strange to me, for more reasons also than I can say. Of course you have a perfect right to make it. But I cannot accept it - it is impossible. Please never speak of this matter again. If you cannot promise me this, I must ask you not to come back."

"Why is it impossible?" Newman demanded. "You may think it is, at first, without its really being so. I didn't expect you to be pleased at first, but I do believe that if you will think of it a good while, you may be satisfied ."

A rose-crowned Greek of old, gazing at a marble goddess with his whole bright intellect resting satisfied in the act, could not have been a more complete embodiment of the wisdom that loses itself in the enjoyment of quiet harmonies.

Note: This kind of total contemplative satisfaction, leaving nothing to be desired seems to me just as strong as, or rather stronger, than being "pleased".

Newman eyed his interlocutress and satisfied himself that she was not a gossip, but a zealot; she looked anxious, appealing, discreet. "It is quite true," he said. "I want to marry Madame de Cintre."

Note: This corresponds to the BBC example given above. "satisfied" here means, that Newman has had certain doubts, certain questions, and, after due consideration, is convinced (satisfied) that he understands the other person.

These two remarks might have constituted an impertinence; but a glance at Lord Deepmere's face would have satisfied you, as it apparently satisfied Madame de Cintre, that they constituted only a naivete.

Note: "satisfied" here means "convinced".

"Well, I have a great regard for each of you," Valentin continued. "You are charming young people. But I am not satisfied , on the whole, that you belong to that small and superior class - that exquisite group composed of persons who are worthy to remain unmarried. These are rare souls; they are the salt of the earth. But I don't mean to be invidious; the marrying people are often very nice."

Note: "satisfied" here = "convinced"

Dubious little damsel as you thought her, she had kept a firm hold of that; nothing could be proved against her, and she was determined not to let her reputation go till she had got her equivalent. About her equivalent she had high ideas. Apparently her ideal has been satisfied . It is fifty years old, bald-headed, and deaf, but it is very easy about money.

Note: Apparently, this girl has hesitated a long time before agreeing to get married. She wanted to find a man who was an ideal match for her. Now. at last, she has found him, but we, the readers perhaps do not find him very attractive: he is old, bald, deaf, but rich. This meaning of "satisfaction" has nothing to do with doing a job well or badly but simply with a list of criteria matching a check-list. See the check-list example given above. Here we have it in a nice social context.

Note: In the following example you have several of our terms brought together in the same conversation: satisfied, pleased, content, happy, etc etc. You can see how many shades of meaning there are and how much is said between the lines. The young American gets almost everything wrong in the presence of his aristocratic hosts (they are French, but the whole conversation is in English and the aristocratic values and prejudices are the same). His grammar is perfect, but ... He is subtly put into his place, but he doesn't realise it. Being American and being a "commercial man", he does not understand the aristocratic ways of saying things. Grammar and vocabulary is not enough.

quote starts here:

"This is a very splendid entertainment," said Newman, cheerfully. "The old house looks very bright."

"If YOU are pleased, we are content ," said the marquis, lifting his shoulders and bending them forward.

"Oh, I suspect every one is pleased," said Newman. "How can they help being pleased when the first thing they see as they come in is your sister, standing there as beautiful as an angel?"

"Yes, she is very beautiful," rejoined the marquis, solemnly. "But that is not so great a source of satisfaction to other people, naturally, as to you."

"Yes, I am satisfied, marquis, I am satisfied," said Newman, with his protracted enunciation. "And now tell me," he added, looking round, "who some of your friends are."

M. de Bellegarde looked about him in silence, with his head bent and his hand raised to his lower lip, which he slowly rubbed.

quote ends here

Note: When Newman says here that he is "satisfied" (note the emphasis on his tone of voice, which always matters), it is an extremely strong expression of approval.

Newman, the American, speaks "cheerfully", as if he were an equal to his hosts. The marquis speaks "solemnly" (= gravely). Then after more cheerful effusions from Newman he loses his speech altogether and "looks about him in silence". Newman leads the conversation instead of leaving that to his higher-status hosts. Readers from Arab and Indian cultures, where respect is still valued, will easily feel that Newman's bahaviour is naive and inappropriate.

Modern readers from Europe and America.will find it more difficult to get the point, because notions of respect have been so largely eroded, so much so that a well-known interviewer actually asked one of the best-known and respected international religious leaders: "Do you ever masturbate?" and this was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 some years ago (It was a live interview).. European and American readers would have to imagine how they would (or ought to) behave if they were to meet the Queen, The Pope or President Obama, and whether they would tell their hosts that they are pleased with Buckingham Palace, The Vatican or the White House.

Your party is magnificent; it was a very happy thought. It is much better than that thing of mine would have been."

"If you are pleased I am satisfied," said Madame de Bellegarde. "My desire was to please you."

"Do you want to please me a little more?" said Newman. "Just drop our lordly friend; I am sure he wants to be off and shake his heels a little. Then take my arm and walk through the rooms."

"My desire was to please you," the old lady repeated.

"Well, I confess," remarked Newman, "I don't want to hear anything unpleasant. I am satisfied with everything - most of all with you. I have seen all the ladies and talked with a great many of them; but I am satisfied with you." Madame de Cintre covered him for a moment with her large, soft glance, and then turned her eyes away into the starry night. So they stood silent a moment, side by side. "Say you are satisfied with me," said Newman.

He had to wait a moment for the answer; but it came at last, low yet distinct: "I am very happy."

Note: The word "satisfied" is extremely strong here, much stronger than "pleased" in the question which started this essay. When Newman says: "Say you are satisfied with me", it sounds almost as if he were asking "Say that you love me", and perhaps that is what he means but doesn't dare ask.

"Let us have no more discussion than is necessary," resumed Madame de Bellegarde. "My daughter told you everything when she said she gave you up."

"I am not satisfied about your daughter," said Newman; "I want to know what you did to her. It is all very easy talking about authority and saying you commanded her. She didn't accept me blindly, and she wouldn't have given me up blindly. Not that I believe yet she has really given me up; she will talk it over with me. But you have frightened her, you have bullied her, you have HURT her. What was it you did to her?"

Note: "satisfied" here means "fully informed", "I do not yet know as much as I require to know".

And how is Bellegarde?" said Newman. "He was badly hit?"

"The doctor has condemned him; we brought a surgeon with us. But he will die in the best sentiments. I sent last evening for the cure of the nearest French village, who spent an hour with him. The cure was quite satisfied."

"Heaven forgive us!" groaned Newman. "I would rather the doctor were satisfied! And can he see me - shall he know me?"

Note: Bellegarde has been fatally injured in a duel. "The doctor has condemned him" = The doctor has said that he will die. A curé is a French priest. The curé is satisfied (= convinced) that the dying man Bellegarde has made his peace with God.

His narrative provoked some rectifications on the part of the prince, who, as he said, pretended to know something about that matter; and having satisfied himself that Newman was in no laughing mood, either with regard to the size of his head or anything else, he entered into the controversy with an animation for which the duchess, when she set him down as a bore, could not have been prepared.


The only way to learn this sort of thing is incessant reading, looking out for examples and interpreting them in context. Then gradually a picture will grow in your mind of the implications of each of these words in different contexts.

Mr Newman, the confident (overconfident?) and cheerful American, makes mistakes in the company of European aristocrats even though his English grammar and vocabulary is perfect. A European with perfect mastery of Arabic grammar and vocabulary will make similar mistakes when interacting with Arabs. Grammar and vocabulary is not the only thing one has to learn when learning a foreign language.

Teachers tell you WHAT to learn, IDYLL (R) shows you HOW to learn it.