What Does 'Subpar' Mean?

"Under par" is good, but "subpar" is bad. Confused? Here's the deal!

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
3-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Something that’s “subpar” bad. It’s performing below average, or worse than usual. However, in the game of golf, coming in “under par” is good. That means you’ve completed the course in fewer strokes than the standard.

One of our listeners asked us this week about the term “subpar.” She said that in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lives, golf is very popular. She’s tried “taking a swing at the phrase ‘subpar,’” but wasn’t sure she was using it right. 

Kerry, here’s the scoop.

'Par' means equivalent currencies in economics

The first thing to know is that “par” comes from classical Latin, where it meant "equal," or "equality." Over time, it came to have a specific meaning in economics. It refers to the value of one country’s currency in relation to another. In terms of US currency, we could say that par is $1 US dollar for $1.3 Singapore dollars. Or that par is $1 US dollar for 72 Indian rupees.

“Par” also has a meaning on the stock exchange. It refers to the face value of a share, as distinct from its market value. If a share is priced above the face value, it’s said to be “above par.” If it’s smack dab at face value, it’s “at par.” And if it’s on sale, below face value, it’s “below par.” (1)

'On par' means at the same level

“Par” also has a general meaning outside of economics. It refers to anything that’s on the same level as something else.

If your mom is a great cook, you could say that her cooking is on par with that of any famous chef. If you’re a particularly proud parent, you might say that your daughter’s pitching is on par with that of any major league baseball player. 

In contrast, if her favorite baseball team lost, you could say that they were not quite on par with their opponents that night. You might even say their hitting was subpar. In other words, worse than usual.

'Under par' means you’re winning, in golf

So far, we’ve talked about things that are “under par” as being bad. This leads us back to Kerry’s question. Because “par” has another meaning related to golf, and in that context, subpar is good.

You see, in golf, “par” is the number of strokes that an expert player needs to complete a game. Typical golf courses have a par value of 72. That’s made up of four par-3 holes, 10 par-4 holes, and four par-5 holes. (2)

If you do the math, that means that a really good golfer should have to hit the ball 72 times to get it in all 18 holes and complete the course. 

Now, a great golfer can do even better. When Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament in 2019—that’s one of golf’s big four tournaments—he finished the final round 2 under par, and the whole tournament 13 under par. In other words, it took him 13 fewer strokes to finish the tournament than even the best of golfers are expected to do.

Back in 1997, he had set the record for the lowest on-par score ever at the Masters, finishing 18 under par. His rival Dustin Johnson broke that record in 2020, finishing the tournament at 20 under par. I’m not a golf fan, but wow!

'Par for the course' means totally expected

In the olden days, people used to refer to this average as being the “par of the green.” Today, we talk about a certain number of strokes being “par for the course.” (3)

And that term has extended its meaning outside of golf, to mean something that’s normal or expected in any given circumstances.

You might say that kids looking at their phones in class is par for the course these days. Or that people happily paying four or five dollars for a cup of coffee has become par for the course.

Like it or not, it’s what we’ve come to expect.

So, that’s your guidance for today. In the game of golf, being subpar is good. In all other parts of life, it’s bad. And weird variations in our language like this? If you listen to this podcast, you’ll know by now that it’s par for the course.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.