Going from bad to worse: talking about things getting worse

Henrik Weis / DigitalVision / Getty Images

by Liz Walter

Last month I wrote about words and phrases for talking about improvement. This post covers the opposite: talking about things getting worse. Get worse is the most common way of expressing this idea:

The weather seems to be getting worse.

The verb deteriorate and its related noun deterioration are also used but are a little more formal:

Her health deteriorated rapidly.

There was a gradual deterioration in teaching standards.

The verb worsen is also formal. Unlike deteriorate, which is only intransitive, worsen can be intransitive or transitive:

The pain in my stomach began to worsen.

Jack’s involvement is likely to worsen the situation.

More informally, we use the idiom go downhill:

This hotel has really gone downhill since the last time I stayed here.

The informal idiom go to the dogs is used when something (such as a country or an organization) has become much worse than it was in the past:

This company has gone to the dogs since Laura left.

We say very informally that something has gone to pot when it has not been cared for or worked on:

My training schedule for the marathon has completely gone to pot.

Another phrase that means that a person, thing or place is in a much worse state than before is to say that someone or something is not half the (thing) it/he/she used to be:

This resort’s not half the place it used to be.

We sometimes describe an action or event that causes something to become worse as a step backwards (UK) or a backward step (though in the US, this phrase is a step backward), or – more formally – a retrograde step:

We believe that these measures are a backward step for democracy.

They see price caps as a retrograde step for their business.

The formal verb exacerbate means to make an already bad situation even worse:

The chemicals exacerbated my skin condition.

Another phrase that talks about a bad situation becoming even worse is to make matters worse:

I had locked myself out and, to make matters worse, I didn’t have a phone.

The phrase add fuel to the fire also describes making a bad or difficult situation worse:

With many calling for his resignation, these latest accusations only add fuel to the fire.

Finally, two nice verbs to use when talking about something or someone gradually getting worse are descend into and lapse into:

The meeting descended into chaos.

The buildings have lapsed into a state of disrepair.

I hope that all these ways of talking about things getting worse will have the opposite effect on your English!

20 thoughts on “Going from bad to worse: talking about things getting worse

  1. FHK

    Bringing many different words, phrases and idioms under one roof to express a single idea is a good initiative. Thank you.

  2. Liz just saw your blog after thinking about verb-adjective agreement in English working on today’s NYT crossword. “She planted her garden” and “the garden was planted,” etc. I can’t think of any other language that works like this…any comments? Thanks

  3. alex

    I’m a beginner, and I am a little confused when we learned at class that phrases like ” it does add to his situation ” means it worsens the situation. Is there a rule about using common words and actually refers to a negative meaning?

    1. Liz Walter

      Sorry, there isn’t a rule. I don’t think the phrase you mention is very common – it depends on the context. You would have to know that the situation was bad before you could understand from that phrase that it was getting worse.

  4. Bil

    I’ve just found the word “spiral”. does it belong to this context? could anybody explain it a little bit? cheers!

    1. Liz Walter

      Not quite, Joss. For a start, the subject of this sentence is ‘his talent’, so the pronoun must be ‘it’, not ‘he’. Also, we tend to use this phrase more about people or concrete nouns, not abstract concepts. So it would be better to say something like ‘He doesn’t have half the talent he used to have.’ or ‘He is nowhere near as talented as he used to be.’

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, it is wrong. Some people use it *before* ‘and’, as in: Make sure you bring pens, pencils, and paper. This is known as the Oxford comma.

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