Submitted by providencejim on September 12, 2013

“Over-simplistic”

Does that grate on anyone else’s ear? Is there, say, a “simplistic” analysis that is OK, but go a step beyond that and you have “over-simplistic”? Here’s an expert on computing platforms quoted in a NYTimes blog (6 Sep 2013) on Google’s cloud-computing expectations: “It’s an admission that their original vision was over-simplistic....” And that’s hardly a rare instance.

At my current favorite online dictionary, thefreedictionary.com, there’s a note to their definition saying, “Usage: Since simplistic already has too as part of its meaning, it is tautologous to talk about something being too simplistic or over-simplistic.” That doesn’t seem to stop folks from using it, though!

I know there are other similar tautologies in use today, so maybe other posters can bring some up.

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Aha, Will, as an American I have indeed been influenced to believe that "importantly" (and its kin) is not proper to start a sentence with (also influenced not to end a sentence with a preposition, but I long ago outgrew that proscription). Like you I also googled the issue, and found a good brief discussion at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disjunct_(linguistics)

I also see that Grammar Girl (American) reviews the controversy and ends, "So, let’s go with “more (or most) important” as a lead-in—and use it judiciously. It's shorter and less contested.... If what you have to say next is an important thing to convey and receive, drop the –ly: For example, 'Most important, put a lid on the pot before the popcorn kernels start to pop.'”

I realize now even with my prejudice I have probably seen or even used the adverb because the adjective would not make sense. Example: "With his new knowledge Jim, importantly, began being more open-minded on the topic."

Oh, in rereading my prior post I meant to say that switching to "was" made a LESS satisfying, not more, statement. Cheers.

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Hi Jim, I teach foreign students, and in British-based EFL there is absolutely no controversy over sentence adverbs and their use is actively taught. What's more, none of the standard British dictionaries learners use have this use of 'more important', and they all give examples with 'more' or 'most importantly'.

Although Oxford Online Dictionaries do list this use for 'most important', it's interesting that they label important as a sentence adverb in this case, so they're obviously not happy with the adjective argument either.

It's not an entirely American issue, and does get a bit of a mention in Fowler's 3rd Edition, where he talks of 'sentence adjectives', but that's eighteen years old, and attitudes towards sentence adverbs have mellowed quite a bit since then.

I've just done a little research at The Guardian, my regular newspaper (it's the sort of thing I do!) . There were 146 instances of 'Most important', of which nine were being used to start a clause, the rest being used as normal adjectives. For 'Most importantly', there were 96 instances, all but possibly two being used as sentence adverbs.

There were also over 700 instances of 'more importantly' at the British National Corpus, but I'm not going to plough through the 2000 odd examples of 'more important' to see how many are being used as clause openers, but if the ratio is the same as at The Guardian, it would be about 120.

Whatever the mavens over there and Grammar Girl ( I know the site well) say, the adjective version sounds strange to me, and 'more importantly' seems to me to be much more standard in British English, so I'll stick with that. But thanks for alerting me to yet another controversy - it's all grist to the mill.

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'does get a bit of a mention in Fowler's 3rd Edition, where he talks of 'sentence adjectives' - sorry, where the editor R.W.Burchfield talks of ... - Fowler had of course been dead for a long time.

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"There is a distinct difference between emphasizing something and over-emphasizing, for example. Or working and over-working. Is there a distinct difference between simplistic and over-simplistic? No, both indicate that something is too simple an approach or explanation or solution, etc. The 'over' is redundant (like saying something is 'over over-simple')."

I sense we're no longer talking grammar here (there is nothing ungrammatical about "over-simplistic") but rather style - a highly subjective area indeed.

In my view, redundancy is an issue of style, not grammar.

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In my view, over-redundancy is an issue of style, not grammar.

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For JJMBallantyne and jayles the unwise: First, after reviewing the categories available at this site, I see now that Pet Peeves would have been the proper place for my initial post. I'm so used to looking at items in Grammar I just ended up there by habit. But I want to add that none of the reasons I've seen for accepting "over-simplistic" as part of good writing are persuasive to me. It seemed tautological to me before and still does. Might not qualify as bad grammar, but bad writing? Yes.

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More like hypertautological or just plain hypersuperfluous.

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Personally, I have no problem with 'over-simplistic'. Sure, simplistic already means that something has been oversimplified, but it doesn’t really tell us to what degree, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to grade it a bit, whether with ‘very’, ‘too’ or ‘over’.

In any case, it pretty well has idiomatic status now, which to my mind overrides tautology any day. - Its use in books has more or less quadrupled since the mid-70s, id Ngram is anything to go by:

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ov...

I think sometimes people can get a bit too het up about things like tautology and redundancy. The most important thing for me is - does it sound natural - and in this case I think the answer is yes.

That rather po-faced no-ifs-no-buts quote in the Free Dictionary was reprinted from the Collins Dictionary entry for 'simplistic', but there are at least some dictionaries which ignore its strictures as regards 'too':

'His interpretation of the figures is far too simplistic'. (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)
'His interpretation of the theory was too simplistic.' (Merriam-Webster)

And in over 12% of its instances at the British National Corpus (a computerised collection of 'real-life' examples of language use in Britain) , 'simplistic' is accompanied by 'too'.

Oxford Concise has no qualms in its entry for 'over-simplistic' either, with no warning usage comments, and this example which takes the intensifying even further - 'a wildly over-simplistic song about what it takes to be happy'. Nor ironically does Collins in its own entry for 'oversimplistic' (their spelling).

And here are a few examples from academic writing at Google Books:

'having stated in an over-simplistic way how a balanced trinity …. guides my personal taste
'There were conceptions of reading and writing which were based on over-simplistic psychological models'
'However, such an approach seems to be over-simplistic because it raises some obvious concerns'

That last example in particular would sound strange to me without the 'over'.

In fact the Collins entry on 'simplistic' (and so the Free Dictionary) seem to be about the only places where there is any mention of a problem. Google 'over-simplistic' and there appears to be a complete lack of forum discussions or controversy.

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Addendum - Looking at those examples again, I think 'simplistic' on its own sounds fine before a noun - 'a simplistic solution', but seems to be lacking something when used in predicative position after a linking verb - 'This solution is simplistic' - in that position it seems to be crying out for a 'too' or an 'over'.

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I appreciate your research, Warsaw Will, but "over-simplistic" has sounded silly to me since I first ran across it years ago, and it still does. I can accept "quite simplistic" or "really simplistic," but what is the difference between an approach being "simplistic" or "too simplistic"? With just the right pinch of refinement the too simplistic approach could upgrade to simplistic?

But I am happy to hear that 88% of the time you Brits seem to find "simplistic" all by its lonesome to work just fine in real-life language ;-).

I'm almost afraid to raise another usage irksome to me, "preplan/preplanned/preplanning." Is that silliness as much used there as here in the States?

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@providencejim - well, 'each to his ane (own)' as we say in Scotland. For me, whether something is natural idiomatic English weighs in more strongly than logical analysis. No doubt lots of our favourite expressions would fall by the wayside if we always took the approach.

As for preplanning, I agree it's over used, but again their are shades of planning. Some people like to plan their holidays well in advance, others prefer to do it at the last minute. I don't see a problem with having a word for planning something before it's strictly necessary, if it's used sparingly.

Some people similarly object to the word proactive, but to me it doesn't simply mean being active. A proactive approach has a sense of 'before' which simply being 'active' doesn't have, for me at least.

But preplanning and proactive are probably both business buzzwords, and these really are a matter of personal preference. To action or to impact something don't bother me, but the constant use of 'going forward', and the use of 'reach out' to simply mean contact grate a bit.

The answer is simple: if you don't like a word or expression, don't use it, but don't worry too much if other people do. Language is there for all of us to enjoy, not to get too worried about. I've referred to Stephen Fry's wonderful monologue on language before, but there's no harm in doing so again:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7E-aoXLZGY

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I hadn't come across the Fry video before, Warsaw Will, so thanks for posting that. I agree with him and with you that taking a kind of snob approach to a changing language is not admirable. There are lots of new words and new uses for old words that I have not fretted about at all, such as "self-serve" and even "proactive," but sometimes I believe that people who care about our language should speak up about or at least rue developments that just seem to debase the language. After all, isn't that one of the reasons Pain the the English exists?

I believe Fry mentioned the way many use "disinterested" now as an example of something silly to worry about. My point would be that as that word comes to mean "not interested" rather than "impartial," we lose something of value. And there's a period when some use it with the original meaning and others with the new one, which can be confusing. And what happens to "uninterested"--it gets retired?

Then there's "imply" and "infer," which I think Fry also mentions. I think it's useful to have these two words mean different things; isn't it a symptom of lazy thinking to have the latter mean the former?

Sometimes I just rue the passing of a nice phrase that has lost its customary meaning, such as "begs the question." If it's going to mean simply "raises the question" from now on, which seems to be the case, I think English is poorer for it. Sure, the language will survive and move on as it always has; I just can't resist feeling a pang of regret.

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@providencejim - Glad you liked the Stephen Fry video. I hope that what came across is that it is possible to love and enjoy using language without worrying unduly what other people do or say. You make some interesting points, so I’ll take them one by one, if I may.

1. uninterested / disinterested - I make the same distinction as you, but are we really sticking to ‘traditional’ use here? This is from the Online Etymological Dictionary entry for uninterested -

“1640s, ‘unbiased,’ .... It later meant "disinterested" (1660s); sense of ‘unconcerned, indifferent’ is recorded from 1771. This is the correct word for what often is miscalled disinterested”

In fact the distinction that you and I both make is relatively new - there’s more about it here - http://caxton1485.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/the-...

2. infer/imply - in ‘careful writing’ I also make the same distinction as you, but no doubt informally I might have come out with something like “Are you inferring I’m a liar” when I ‘should’ have said ‘implying’ - but given the context, is there likely to be any possibility of misunderstanding? I doubt it.

3. And my favourite: ‘begging the question’, which if you don’t mind I’ll link with ‘decimate’ and ‘hopefully’, as all three of these utterances are in fact very rarely used in the ways that the purists would have us reserve for them.

I used to be a ‘decimate snob’, but apart from reading about Roman military history, I think I’ve only once come across the word being used in its ‘reduce by a tenth’ sense, in a radio play about Cromwell’s New Model Army. And ‘hopefully’ is equally rarely used to mean ‘in a hopeful manner’.

Which brings us to ‘begging the question’. I know a little bit about this as I blogged about it fairly recently and did a bit of research before posting. This has in fact three possible meanings: the original logical fallacy, a nineteenth century variation meaning ‘to evade the question’, and its twentieth century sense of ‘raising the question’, although I would argue that ‘beg the question’ is a bit stronger, and that’s why it has proved popular.

I checked the first ten Google entries for ‘beg the question’ at four ‘quality’ news media sites, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The BBC and The New York Times, (ignoring those concerned with the use of the expression itself). Of forty entries, only three (all at the NYT) didn’t have the ‘raise the question’ meaning, and two of those were probably for ‘evade the issue’, one of which was from 1862! In fact outside discussions about the expression, you’d be hard put to find it its logical fallacy meaning anywhere. At the British National Corpus, out of 97 examples, I found only four that were ambiguously concerned with the logical fallacy.

But more importantly, just because a word or expression takes on a new meaning doesn’t mean the old meaning has to disappear, nor that there is inevitably confusion. The expression ‘beg the question’ is, for example, almost always used in a different way to express ‘raise the question’ than it is for the logical fallacy. When used in the former meaning it is almost always followed by the question it raises, often with ‘of’ - ‘This begs the question of where the money is going to come from’. But when used in its logical fallacy meaning, there is no ‘question’ to follow it, and it is usually used on its own or followed with ‘by’ as in these examples from the BNC’:

‘Sartre's 'singular universal', therefore, begs the question, for it is predicated on the ...’
‘This easy remark begs the question against the relevant argument’
‘The debate has been sterile because each side has begged the question by assuming itself to be correct.’

In fact the most likely confusion is between the logical fallacy and the ‘evade the issue’ meaning, exemplified by that last one, which I can’t really make up my mind about.

There is no reason why words and expressions can’t have a different meaning when used by specialists and in general use (I’ve talked about the different general and specific meanings of ‘Classical music’ on another thread). Logicians are intelligent chaps (and chapesses), and I’m sure they can tell the difference between one use and the other, and the same goes for military historians.

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2013/07...

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Correction - unambiguously

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As always, Warsaw Will, quite helpful and well-documented comments. I would never in a conversation, oral or written (oops, that reminds me of "oral/verbal"), get exercised about or mention someone's misuse (according to strict standards) of language. Where I do expect better is from those who earn their living or their reputation from published nonfictional writing. As even Stephen Fry points out, context is important. Newspaper op-eds merit more scrutiny than emails.

Thanks also for introducing me to Google Ngram, with which I can see spending some time.

Just two final points on "over-simplistic": 1) The online Oxford Dictionary defines it thus: "treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are; simplistic." No usage note, but I think that definition says it all ;-). 2) It turns out there is not a complete lack of online discussion: Google's page 2 includes this one!

Cheers.

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"I think sometimes people can get a bit too het up about things like tautology and redundancy."

This sort of thing is an age-old* characteristic of language. Speakers double up on words as a means of emphasis. The use of over- + noun/verb is thoroughly unremarkable: over-reaction, overdress, overwork, over-emphasize (!). Why not over-simplistic?

* QED

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It doesn't bother me per se. I don't often say over simplistic, but I do often refer to explanations as being overly simplistic, an over simplification, or as being over simplified.

I suspect that you don't like the sound of 'over' as a flat adverb, but it can be one. I feel the same way about first/firstly (well actually, I should say second/secondly since firstly is not standard --- in this case, I prefer it sans -ly). Same thing for me with drive fast/quick vs drive fastly/quickly. Everyone of those are flat adverbs (i.e. over, first, second, fast, quick). The rest has been well addressed by others.

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PS @providencejim "Where I do expect better is from those who earn their living or their reputation from published nonfictional writing."

The NYT has their own style guide. It is as I said a flat adverb, which they use whenever possible. Most other publications use the AP Styleguide. Either way, I assure you that's not an unnoticed error on their part. It's quite standard; we all have our gripes (see: firstly/secondly) :)

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Sorry @providencejim, to answer you more directly, yes one can generalize too much! (aka give an over(ly) simplistic explanation)

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Thanks for joining the discussion, JJMB and Grammarnut, but I really have no problem with the use of "over" as a modifier. Look at the online Oxford Dictionary definition of "over-simplistic" I cite above: "treating complex issues and problems as if they were much simpler than they really are; simplistic." If a highly respected reference source like that ends up saying "over-simplistic" can be defined as "simplistic," what does that say about the "over-" version?

There is a distinct difference between emphasizing something and over-emphasizing, for example. Or working and over-working. Is there a distinct difference between simplistic and over-simplistic? No, both indicate that something is too simple an approach or explanation or solution, etc. The "over" is redundant (like saying something is "over over-simple").

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Firstly (It's OK Grammarnut, that's standard in BrE), congratulations everyone on making this thread such a calm and civilised oasis. I would just like to follow up on something I wrote earlier. I find the following sentence very bare as it stands, and I wonder if it sounds natural and idiomatic to you without 'too' or 'over':

'His explanation was simplistic.'

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WWill, your sentence sounds as natural and idiomatic to me as would "His explanation was too simple."

I really think that your example might sound bare to some is because we have become accustomed to seeing/hearing "over-" or "too simplistic." Seems to me that somehow over the past few decades "simplistic" has been conflated with "simple," so now where "too simple" would have sufficed we see "too simplistic."

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Hi providencejim, I don't think my problem is specific to 'simplistic', or is really about semantics; I think it goes for a lot of adjectives in predicative position. For example - 'He suggested a neat solution to the problem' sounds fine to me, but 'His solution to the problem was neat' sounds strange to me, it seems to be 'begging' for an intensifier of some sort.

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Will, you mean your example begs the question of whether a predicative adjective needs an intensifier? ;-) To me no intensifier is needed, technically--but the second version is definitely weakened by the switch from active to passive voice. How about "Her reply to Arnold's entreaty was cold." Seems fine to me, even with the passive.

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Hi Jim (?), from Providence (?) - I agree, technically, it just seems a little cold, as it were. But sorry, what do you mean the passive? There's no passive involved there. I simply used the verb 'be' - Look at your own sentence - 'Her reply was cold' which follows the same pattern - subject + be + adjective - Then change it to ''Damn, it's cold' exactly the same pattern - that's not passive.

Don't get me started on the passive. There is a myth in certain circles, especially but not exclusively in the States, that the passive is the sign of weak writing. Well, which sounds stronger to you - 'They gave me the sack' (active) or 'I was booted out' (passive). The passive should be treated the same as any other construction, and each case judged on its own merits.

It's ironic, but many of critics of the passive misidentify it, seeing where it isn't, and using it themselves, apparently without realising it. Look back at your last comment. In the very sentence where you say the passive weakens the example, you have used the passive twice. Now I know you were having a bit of fun with 'begging the question' but were those two passives a joke as well? In fact, they show just how useful the passive is.

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2011/11...

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A bit of clumsy editing as usual - an extra 'of' and a missing 'it'!

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Hello Will (yes, it's Jim): My nighttime mind must have been groggy, as I wouldn't ordinarily mistake a simple use of the past tense of "be" as passive voice. And unlike what I believe is now an old-school American standard, I've never deemed avoidance of the passive as essential for good writing. I should have said that the switch from the active verb "suggested" to simply using "was" made for a more satisfying statement of the situation.

As long as we've gone off-topic here, I'd like to raise the issue of when one should use "important" or "importantly" in an introductory phrase. In your post of the 16th you begin a sentence, "But more importantly...." (Noted at the time but I resisted raising the issue.) It's my understanding that when the phrase modifies not simply an active verb but a whole clause, what's called for is "But more important...."

I don't think this is nitpicking, as the difference is between using an adverb or an adjective. Many times I see "importantly" used even when the main verb following is a form of "be," as in "More importantly, this issue is one with a long history." I think we're so used to seeing and hearing "importantly" that we don't even think about it any more. Now I don't care which is used informally, but when I see it in published writing, like news stories and op-eds, it grates. (And lest I be misinterpreted, I consider these posts informal exchanges ;-).

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Hi Jim, off-topic discussions are often the best. As you say, I used 'importantly' to modify a whole clause rather than a verb, but that is exactly one of the functions of an adverb, which can modify a verb, an adjective, another adverb or a whole clause.

In that example I was using it as a so-called sentence adverb, as in 'Luckily, it's stopped raining' or 'Unfortunately, I disagree with you'. In fact I would have said 'More important' was the less formal one because an adjective can only modify a noun, and where's the noun? I imagine 'More important' is really short for 'What is more important'.

As for your example with 'be', as it is being used as sentence adverb, the fact that the verb 'be' is involved makes no difference. What is important is that we use an adjective, not an adverb, to refer back to the subject. 'She sings beautifully' but 'Her voice is really beautiful'. In your example 'More importantly' isn't modifying 'issue', but the whole idea, so an adverb is called for.

[sentence adverb] used to emphasize a significant point:
'a non-drinking, non-smoking, and, importantly, non-political sportsman' - Oxford Online

'More importantly, can he be trusted?' - Oxford Advanced Learner's

used for emphasizing that something is important
'Importantly, these measures were accepted by all political parties.' - Macmillan Dictionary

'Most importantly, you must keep a record of everything you do.' - Longman Dictionary

There may be a convention in the States I don't know about, and Oxford Online also lists 'important' as a sentence adverb:

[sentence adverb]:the speech had passion and, more important, compassion

OK, I've now found this, from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, via the Free Dictionary:

'Usage Note: Some critics have objected to the use of the phrase more importantly in place of more important when one introduces an assertion, as in "More importantly, no one is ready to step into the vacuum left by the retiring senator". But both forms are widely used by reputable writers, and there is no obvious reason for preferring one or the other.'

And this from Random House via Dictionary.com:

Usage Note
'Both more important and more importantly occur at the beginning of a sentence in all varieties of standard English: "More important (or More importantly), her record as an administrator is unmatched". Today, more importantly is the more common, even though some object to its use on the grounds that more important is an elliptical form of “What is more important” and that the adverb importantly could not occur in such a construction. More importantly probably developed by analogy with other sentence-modifying adverbs, as curiously, fortunately, and regrettably.'

(And of course the much-maligned 'hopefully')

I'd never heard of this proscription before, so it may well be an American thing - and indeed the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language say that:

'American commentators tend to object to the adverb and recommend the adjective.Objections are made primarily on grammatical grounds. Many (say) ...that ""more importantly" modifies nothing in the sentence. But from the same point of view, neither does "More important. So a longer phrase "what is more important", is postulated and ellipsis adduced to explain the inconvenient absence of "what is"'.

They then give examples of both uses from established writers and finish off by saying:

"You can, then use either the adjective of the adverb; both are defensible grammatically and both are in respectable use. As Bryson says, "the choice of which to use must be entirely a matter of preference" '.

As I'm British I don't have to worry about all this, of course, and the adverb sounds much more natural to me. What's more, sentence adverbs are no longer as controversial as they were a few decades ago, and the idea that an adverb can modify a whole clause is absolutely standard in EFL/ESL and linguistics. This is from Oxford Online:

adverb - a word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree (e.g. gently, here, now, very). Some adverbs, for example sentence adverbs, can also be used to modify whole sentences.

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