Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Comparatively Well Done!

Posted by Neal on July 15, 2012

Here’s a question for the carnivores out there, in particular the steak-eaters. Suppose you like your steak cooked medium rare. Your father, however, likes his done medium well, and your mother likes hers well done. How would you sum up how your parents like their steak, compared to you?

The most straightforward answer seems like it ought to be My parents like their steak better done than I like mine. We’re modifying the degree of wellness, and the comparative of well is the suppletive form better; hence, better done. But that answer doesn’t sound right when I say it. The only meaning I can get for it is a steak that has been more skillfully prepared. It doesn’t get any hits on COCA, either. It does get a very, very few hits on Google, though, including:

  • Works for my wife who likes her steak better done than the rest of the family.
  • He could have ordered his steak better done.

If better done is excluded, then I guess the answer would be the default, analytic comparative form that you get with adjectives and adverbs that don’t have an -er comparative: My parents like their steak more well done than I like mine. This is definitely a more popular answer. When I searched for “more well done”, I got two hits on COCA, and 179 on Google for “steak more well done”. (That’s an actual 179, by the way. The first page of results said there were 9800 of them, but I paged to the end to get the real number.) Here’s an example from each:

  • If you want it a little more well done, you’re going to leave it on a little bit longer.
  • If you would like the steak more well done, turn the heat down on the pan and continue cooking it for a few more minutes after it has been browned.

However, neither better done nor more well done is what I’ve found myself starting to say more than once. What I’ve wanted to say has been weller done. I’m guessing that since well has a more specialized meaning here than it does in phrases like live well or speak well, or even in the British congratulation Well done!, I’m treating the two as separate but homonymous words. Those who say better done I would say still have how-do-you-want-your-steak well as the same word as the more general-purpose adverb well. Those who say more well done don’t. Instead, they consider well done something like a compound adjective, and use more to make a comparative form the same as they do with compound adjective phrases like more able to meet your needs. As for my weller done, that has something in common with each of the other solutions. Like better done, it takes well as the word to be comparativized, but like more well done, it does not consider this well and the more general-purpose well to be the same word.

One more option I thought of is doner. It seems to me that I’ve probably heard this at least once in my lifetime, but I don’t find any hits for this option, either in COCA or Google.

So I ask you again: How would you express this thought?

UPDATE, July 23, 2012: I forgot until I came across it in my Notes app on my phone that I’ve actually heard weller done in the wild. I was ordering some take-out food, including some baked-to-order cookies. I told the cashier I wanted them cooked well, not doughy in the middle, and she instructed the baker to make them “weller done”.

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13 Responses to “Comparatively Well Done!”

  1. Glen said

    I wonder if people who (like me) are inclined to say “more well done” are also those who prefer steaks on the less-done side of the spectrum, while people who say “better done” tend to be those who prefer steaks on the more-done side of spectrum. After all, if you prefer a less-cooked steak, then you probably don’t think of ‘well’ in “well done” as a statement of approval, so it would seem like just a homonym. On the other hand, if you like a more cooked steak, then the cooking-specific sense of ‘well’ might seem to be just another application of the approval sense of ‘well’.

    • the ridger said

      I think of “well” here as an intensifier, not approval. It’s like “we were well into the third day of the trip” or “they’re well up the creek now”.

      • Marshall Banana said

        I agree with this. That’s why I say “more done” in situations like in the poll.

  2. Eugene said

    I think your compound analysis is right on – more [well-done] which your poll shows to be most popular so far.
    How about this: less [well-done].
    My second favorite is ‘doner’ though I think that people might avoid it because they sense that it is not a (familiar) word. The same would be true for ‘weller’
    What others are 25% of you voting for?

  3. the ridger said

    I think “well-done” is being analyzed as having nothing to do with “good”. “Well” is modifying “done” to produce an adjective that for most people is now a single word. “More/less well-done” for a steak is exactly what I say – and since “perfect!” is what I’m aiming at, “less well” wouldn’t work at all.

  4. I think I’d say “more done” or “less done.”

    Or, if referring to someone who wants it “well done”, “He likes his steak ruined.” ;-)

  5. Ellen K. said

    I voted “more well done”, though I should have written in “more done”. I might also say “less rare”. Or “more cooked”.

  6. Eugene said

    If you compare ‘I like my steak well done’ with the description of a thing ‘well done,’ the former has the stress pattern of a compound and that latter has the stress pattern of a phrase.
    This doesn’t come up very often, does it? We have a scale – rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, well – that covers the possibilities. So more well done works, but how about ordering your steak more medium well?

  7. Terry said

    I reminds me of my high school cooking teacher who, to my endless amusement, used to talk about things being ‘cooked to the correct degree of doneness’. It makes me shudder, it makes me smile, and it makes me think she probably had a point.
    My next question is can something be ‘more cooked’ or ‘less cooked’? Surely it’s either cooked or it’s not, isn’t it?
    My wife likes her steak blacker and I like mine pinker.
    But, to answer the question, finally, I would say ‘more well done’. Would I say rarer or more rare? Probably more rare. But I would more likely refer to ‘doneness’ than ‘rareness’, and I think the reason is that we cook to increasing degrees of doneness, and can’t take doneness away to make it rarer.
    You’ve made me think, but I’m still far from a conclusion. I hope to get less far as the day progresses.

    • As far as more cooked, yes, something can be more cooked or less cooked. In two different ways. The simple way is, for example, cooked on the outside, not on the inside. A rare steak is cooked on the outside only, a well-done steak is cooked all the way through to the middle. But there is also degrees of cooked. The medium steak that’s pink in the middle, that middle is more done, or more cooked, than on a rare steak, but not to the same degree as a well done steak.

  8. My parents like their steak to be more cooked … to be cooked more … to be cooked longer … to be more brown … something like that, probably.

    What’s the context? Who are you hypothetically talking to? Terms like “medium rare” and “well done” belong to quite a formal register, so may be out of place in casual conversation. Do you disagree?

  9. Philip Whitman said

    I would say “more done”.

  10. Buzz said

    My feeling is that “more done” is the most understandable. “Done” is what “well” is modifying, so “more” seems to get across the increase in doneness. Perhaps.

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