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Sandro from the U.S.A. asks:

a homeless man on the streetHow can I use the word pitiful in a sentence?


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Catherine Chapman answers:
Catherine Chapman Hello Sandro. Well, that’s an interesting question. Now, pitiful is an adjective and it comes from the word pity. Now pity is a feeling that people have of kind of kind-hearted sympathy, or sorrow or compassion… when you see a person or an animal that’s suffering in some way, maybe hungry, cold, not looked after. And these feelings of pity will often lead you to help the person or animal that’s suffering. So, if something is described as pitiful, it’s suffering in a way which makes you feel sorry for it and you recognise that it needs help. And here’s some examples:

The horses were in a pitiful condition. They hadn’t been fed for weeks, and they had sore and infected patches all over their skin.

The children had made pitiful attempts to look after their mother but it was clear that the family could not manage.

You can use words like sorry and pathetic as synonyms for pitiful. Now these words pitiful, sorry and pathetic can also have quite a negative meaning. They can be used to mean a feeling of pity but mixed with contempt or disgust for the lack of skill or care or attention that’s caused the situation. Here’s an example:

After years of mismanagement, his finances were in a pitiful state.

And another one:

He made a couple of pitiful excuses about why he hadn’t finished his work, but they were not accepted.

And here are some synonyms for this second meaning of pitiful. They are: deplorable, woeful, disgraceful and contemptible.

Thanks for your question, Sandro!

About Catherine Chapman
Catherine Chapman has a BA (hons) in Communication Studies, CTEFLA, DELTA and a Masters Degree in Educational Technology and English Language Teaching with Manchester University (UK). She has taught EFL, EAP and IT skills in several countries, worked in ELT management and has developed web-based ELT/EAP materials projects in institutions including Istanbul Technical University (Turkey) and Newcastle University (UK). She now works as an ELT Writer for BBC Learning English.