What's the difference between "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome"?

A beautiful model

The words "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome" all describe something which looks good. When several words have the same meaning, how can you choose which one to use?

The best way to learn similar words is to learn them in phrases. Learn the words that go along with them.

Who do we talk about?

So let's start with "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome". Who does each word usually describe?

a beautiful woman

a pretty girl

a gorgeous girl

a handsome man

You can see a few differences immediately. First, the word "handsome" usually describes men instead of women. Next, "beautiful" fits best with "woman" instead of "girl". So you can see that the word "beautiful" is a little more sophisticated.

What do we talk about?

Now let's see what objects these words usually describe:

a beautiful dress

beautiful flowers

beautiful scenery

gorgeous hair

a gorgeous dress

a gorgeous beach

a pretty face

a pretty picture

a pretty dress

handsome features

a handsome profit

Some interesting things to notice here: all of the "female" words can be used to describe a dress. So you can tell that there is overlap between the words. In a lot of situations, you have more than one choice.

You can see that both "pretty" and "handsome" describe someone's face. But we use "features" to talk about a man's face instead of the word "face".

"Beautiful" and "gorgeous" describe parts of nature. But "beautiful" is more common when talking about something small like a flower, while "gorgeous" fits bettter with something large like a beach.

Finally, isn't it funny that a common use of "handsome" is related to money? A "handsome" profit means a large amount of profit.

What else comes with it?

Adjectives are often used along with an adverb. Let's look at what adverbs fit well with "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome":

incredibly beautiful

stunningly beautiful

conventionally pretty

exceptionally pretty

absolutely gorgeous

drop-dead gorgeous

strikingly handsome

ruggedly handsome

Here, we see a lot of differences. Each word has a different set of adverbs that it fits with.

Many of these adverbs just mean "very": "incredibly", "stunningly", "exceptionally", "absolutely", "drop-dead", and "strikingly" all emphasize how good-looking something is.

The phrase "conventially pretty" means pretty in an ordinary and not very exciting way.

A "ruggedly handsome" man is handsome in a kind of rough-looking way.

We can also look at what other adjectives are often used together with "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome":

beautiful and elegant

beautiful and talented

smart and pretty


beautiful and gorgeous

tall and gorgeous

tall and handsome

handsome, young

You can form your own conclusions based on this list. Do you notice any interesting or surprising combinations?

What should you do with all of this information?

You still probably don't completely understand the differences between "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", and "handsome". That's OK! Most English speakers couldn't explain them either. 

But hopefully, you now have some feeling for how they're used.

The best way to keep this feeling is to memorize each of these phrases. Remember which words go together. Here's a fill-in-the-blank list to help you:

  1. a ___ woman
  2. absolutely ___
  3. a ___ beach
  4. stunningly ___
  5. a ___ picture
  6. conventionally ___
  7. ___ hair
  8. ___ features
  9. tall and ___ (2 answers)
  10. a ___ profit
  11. a ___ dress (3 answers)
  12. incredibly ___
  13. exceptionally ___
  14. ___ flowers
  15. a ___ girl (2 answers)
  16. drop-dead ___
  17. ___, young
  18. ___/sexy
  19. a ___ face
  20. strikingly ___
  21. a ___ man
  22. ruggedly ___
  23. ___ and elegant
  24. smart and ___
  25. beautiful and ___
  26. ___ and talented
  27. ___ scenery

When it comes time to choose which word to use, you'll have some examples to compare to.

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