Are you fair or are you honest?

In the UK (or is it just in the south of England?), you often hear people using the phrase ‘to be fair’. What’s interesting, to me at least, is how often it is used in place of to be honest.

The definition from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for to be fair is:

used when adding something after someone has been criticized, which helps to explain or excuse what they did

The example given is: She should have phoned to tell us what her plans were, although, to be fair, she’s been very busy.

A synonym is given: in fairness, which can also be in all fairness.

So according to this dictionary, it’s all about whether you feel you haven’t been quite fair – to another person. You want to mention something that exonerates or justifies something someone has done that has just been talked about. But the comment added usually refers to someone else.

To be honest

The same dictionary – sorry, but I was involved with the Longman dictionary for many years, so I naturally go to it as my source – gives this definition for to be honest (with you):

spoken used when you tell someone what you really think

With the example:

To be honest, I don’t like him very much.

So perhaps it’s normal to use to be honest when you are talking about yourself or your own feelings or opinions.

To be fair – do you use it like this?

In spoken (British, and possibly just southern) English, it is extremely common to hear sentences like these:

I’m starting a new job tomorrow, but, to be fair, I’m not looking forward to it.

To be fair, I think he’s a bit of a fool.

Now you’ve said that, to be fair, I think you’re wrong.

So it seems that people are using to be fair when they are just giving their opinion about something….

I’d be interested to know what people think about this, especially people NOT from the south of England. Feel free to write in with your views!

2 thoughts on “Are you fair or are you honest?

  1. Well, to be honest,,, (haha) I often hear people use both phrases interchangeably at least here in the states. My take on based completely upon personal observation, is that when people say “to be honest” they are probably going to give what could be perceived as a negative opinion and they don’t care if it is seen as such. When I hear “to be fair” it usually comes across as a negative opinion that the speaker doesn’t necessarily want viewed negatively.

    1. Well, to be honest, I thought this was just a British issue, so it’s interesting to hear it applies in the US, too. I wonder if other people in the US agree with your analysis. Maybe ask your friends at Global English, a company which I had dealings with many, many years ago.

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