Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Deceptively deceptive

with 4 comments

A typical swimming pond in Summer
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‘Deceptively’ is a strange word as it has two completely opposite meanings.  It can mean:

  • To a greater extent than appears to be the case
  • To a lesser extent than appears to be the case

Look at these sentences:

The interior of the building is deceptively spacious.

This means the interior of the building is larger than you might think, not smaller.

But:

The water is deceptively shallow.

This means the water is less shallow than you might think, not more shallow.

And:

The plans were deceptively simple.

This means the plans were less simple than you might think, not simpler.

And sometimes, it’s hard to work out what is meant. For example, what do the following mean?

The hillside is deceptively steep.

The beer is deceptively strong.

To ensure clarity in your writing, it’s probably best to avoid using ‘deceptively’ in such cases.

See Oxford Dictionaries on this particular conundrum.

Commonly confused words and phrases

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4 Responses

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  1. In my estimation, using “deceptively” prior to a situation or condition that is a negative works better than before a positive one, therefore I would be more likely to use your second two examples than your first two. Deceit itself is a negative, so as an adverb it ought to modify a negative, as a warning to the unwary.

    Invisible Mikey

    22/05/2010 at 9:57 am

  2. Hi, Mikey — that’s a really interesting analysis, thank you. I came across this conundrum a short while ago and still can’t quite get my head around it. Thanks again. And good luck with your house!

    Deborah

    22/05/2010 at 11:14 am

  3. Great post. Never thought about that before.

    Lisa

    22/05/2010 at 2:43 pm

    • Thanks, Lisa — it’s still making me think too!

      Deborah

      22/05/2010 at 4:06 pm


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