Fairly or very? A tiny word that makes the world of difference

Discusses a common source of confusion for native Chinese speakers

In my role at Middlesex University I support a lot of junior academics by reading their papers and funding applications. In this process I noticed a recurring "mistake" in English language use by native Chinese speakers. These were all academics with good English-language skills, but they used the word "fairly" in a way that could easily have led to a communication breakdown or a failure to secure a research funding.

One used the word "fairly" in his thank-you emails [e.g. thanking me for giving fairly important pieces of information]. In English fairly means: "just a little bit" or "somewhat" important. What they wanted to say was "very" important, i.e. "a lot" important. It would not be very polite to tell someone that their feedback was only a little bit important!

The two sound almost the same in English especially for native Chinese speakers, but they have very different meanings. So especially if you talk to native English speakers you have to be really careful that you use the right one. They might get a really wrong impression of you if you say their help was fairly important or their work is fairly good.

In a multi-lingual environment like Middlesex University Business School where the vast majority of staff are not native English speakers, colleagues might not mind this so much and simply assume your good will.

But what if you use this word in a funding application saying the project is "fairly important" or "fairly feasible" as another mentee did? The funding panel might not be as understanding as your multi-lingual colleagues!

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