Have you ever been fined for a late library book? Or cut it fine for a flight? Tim Bowen’s explanation of this versatile word should be more than just fine.

Apart from its use as an adjective, fine can also be used as a noun to mean an amount of money you have to pay because you have broken the law, as in ‘He had to pay a hefty fine for contempt of court’ and as a verb meaning to make someone pay an amount of money as a punishment for breaking the law, as in ‘She was fined £250 for speeding’. In both uses, fine is followed by the preposition for.

It is also used informally as an adverb to mean in a way that is acceptable and good enough, as in ‘My car’s working fine now’ and ‘Don’t worry if it’s taking a long time. You’re doing just fine’.

The expression to do someone fine means to be enough for someone, as in ‘If you haven’t got any coffee, a glass of water will do me fine’. If you cut it fine, you leave only just enough time to complete something or arrive somewhere, as in ‘We could take the 5 o’clock bus to the airport but we’ll be cutting it fine if our flight is at 6.30’.

As an adverb, fine is also used to form the verb to fine-tune, meaning to make small changes to something in order to make it as good or effective as possible, as in ‘The prime minister spent the morning fine-tuning his speech’ and in the expression a fine-toothed comb, which literally means a comb with very thin teeth and very narrow spaces between them. This is mainly used in the expression with a fine-toothed comb, meaning very carefully, so that you notice or find everything, as in ‘The forensic team went through all his documents with a fine-toothed comb’. It is also used in the expressions a fine line to describe a situation when the difference between two contrasting things is very small, for example, ’There’s a fine line between telling lots of jokes and being really annoying.’