Give yourself a pat on the back! (The language of praising)

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by Kate Woodford

I thought our About Words readers might enjoy a positive post this week, so today I’m focusing on the language of praise – saying nice, positive things about someone or something. We’re looking at single words and phrases and, as ever, focusing on the sort of language that is in use now.

Let’s start with ‘compliment’. A compliment is a comment that praises an aspect of someone. We pay someone a compliment:

The host paid me a compliment on my jacket.

You might say that you believe someone’s comment to you is positive by saying I take it/that as a compliment:

‘Tim said you look like your mother.’ ‘Well, I take that as a compliment!’

There is also the verb ‘compliment’: I complimented him on his cooking skills. (Notice the preposition on after both verb and noun.)

The noun acclaim refers to public praise and approval:

The novel received / attracted great critical acclaim but didn’t sell in great numbers.

There is the verb ‘acclaim’ too:

The film was widely acclaimed by critics.

a critically acclaimed novel / writer

If you say you applaud someone or something, you are saying, slightly formally, that you admire and respect them:

I may not always agree with her politics but I certainly applaud her courage.

If you flatter someone, you say something nice about them which is not exactly true:

Thanks, Alfie, but I think you flatter me.

‘Flatter’ is sometimes negative, suggesting that a person is using praise in order to make someone like them, or even to get something from them.

You can flatter me all you like, Tom, but I’m not going to cook dinner for you! (The noun is flattery.)

Staying with praise that is insincere, speech or writing is described as gushing when it praises too much, in a way that is embarrassing or does not sound honest:

I think she found the praise a bit gushing.

Let’s look now at phrases. A slightly informal expression meaning ‘praise’ is a pat on the back. It’s used in various ways. For example, if someone has done something good, you might say they deserve a pat on the back or they should give themselves a pat on the back:

The project has been a huge success. Everyone involved in it should give themselves a pat on the back!

If you put in a good word for someone, you praise them to another person, usually to get something good for them, for example a job:

I’m seeing the manager of the café this evening so I’ll put in a good word for you, Josh.

Another phrase in this area is to sing someone’s / something’s praises. To do this is to praise someone or something with enthusiasm:

Lara’s teacher seems very pleased with her progress. She was singing her praises at parents’ evening.

A more formal phrase for this is extol someone’s / something’s virtues:

He gave a speech, extolling the president’s virtues.

Finally, to pay tribute to someone is to praise them formally, sometimes after they have died:

Party members paid tribute to their ex-leader who died two days before the conference.

13 thoughts on “Give yourself a pat on the back! (The language of praising)

  1. rchannon

    To take something as a compliment also has the implication that either 1) the remark speaker did not intend it as a compliment or that 2) the original remark was ambiguous, neutral or sometimes downright negative. Infelicitous example, A: you did a wonderful job! B: I take that as a compliment [Huh?] Felicitous: A: You have a prominent nose [especially to a woman] B: I take that as a compliment!

  2. Josep

    A difficult point in the language of praising, is to make sure that your remarks will not be interpreted as mockery. Praise is so rare and mockery so abundant, that people understandably get suspicious when they receive a compliment. Or even when they receive an expression of sympathy in difficult times.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hello! I’m glad you found the post useful. Yes, ‘blow your own horn’ definitely a praise idiom. Perhaps I should have included it. You sometimes hear people saying, ‘I don’t want to blow my own horn, but…’ Best wishes to you!

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