The Grammarphobia Blog

Hits and misses

Q: I was listening to NPR the other day when a reporter used the term “anti-intuitive.” I don’t believe such a word exists, though I got more than 60,000 hits for it on Google. Isn’t “counterintuitive” the correct term?

A: An unscientific analysis of Google hits for “anti-intuitive” suggests that most of the writers are mistakenly using the term in place of “counterintuitive.”

However, I’ve found some instances in which academic, technical, or scientific writers use both “anti-intuitive” and “counterintuitive,” so I suspect that at least some of these people regard the two as independent words.

The question then becomes, if they’re different, what do they mean?

“Counterintuitive” means contrary to intuition – that is, unexpected or apparently improbable. The word was first used in print by Noam Chomsky in 1955, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The prefix “counter” is from the Latin contra, meaning against or in return.)

“Anti-intuitive” is not cited anywhere in the OED or any of the dictionaries I usually consult, but logically it would seem to mean either defying or lacking intuition.

As many writers use it – that is, those who aren’t mistaking it for “counterintuitive” – the word often means incoherent or difficult to understand. (The prefix “anti” is from Greek and means against or instead.)

This may be a term that’s still in progress!

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