Terrible, terrific or terrifying

Miriam Herud

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If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of any of the three words terrible, terrific or terrifying, you’re barking up the right tree here. 

What all the three words have in common is the same root – you can see that the first couple of letters are identical. However, the suffixes that come afterward make all the difference. Two of the adjectives have rather negative meaning, one of them is very positive. Can you guess which one? 

Let’s see. We’ll begin with the adjective that, I think, is the most well-known, English students usually learn it in the very early stages of their study when they want to express that something is extremely bad or unpleasant. Yeah, the adjective I’m talking about is “terrible”. You can say the weather on your holiday was terrible – it was raining all the time and bitter cold, so it was terrible. Or you had two glasses of red wine for dinner and now your head hurts like crazy – that’s because red wine gives you a terrible headache. Or yesterday you almost got fired because there was a terrible misunderstanding between you and your boss. And we could go on like that. 

But let’s move on to “terrifying”. Is this one the positive one? What do you think? – No, not yet! By terrifying we mean something which is very frightening, very scary, something that makes us feel extremely afraid. I had a terrifying experience – I was walking in the forest when all of a sudden I spotted a bear in the clearing. It was so terrifying I couldn’t move, I couldn’t make my feet work, I was just standing there, in terror, in shock. Or when I was six, my parents took me to a fun park. And I was so mesmerized by all the rides that I lost sight of my parents and I got lost for a couple of seconds. Was that a terrifying experience for a 6-year-old child! I was scared to death! Or last night I had a terrifying dream. I woke up in the middle of the night, all drenched in sweat, then I realized it was just a dream – a very bad, terrifying dream, or nightmare… 

And finally, we’ve made it to the last of the three adjectives, which is “terrific”. Not only does it carry a positive meaning, unlike the previous two, but it also has a different word stress – see, in the words terrible and terrifying we emphasize the first syllable: terrible, terrifying. While in terrific, the stress is on the second syllable: terrific. As for the meaning, it is a synonym of wonderful, fantastic or excellent. So, next time your boss comes to you and says: “You did a terrific job”, do not confuse it with “terrible”, he’s definitely praising you, giving you credit for your hard work. Or when your friend tells you she’s got terrific news, don’t get alarmed and worried, but smile and ask what the happy news is, because terrific is nothing but fabulous

So terrible? Terrifying? Or terrific? I hope I’ve made it clearer for you and from now on you’ll find it easier to tell them apart and use them in the right way. Good luck!