The Grammarphobia Blog

A deceptively tricky word

Q: I have a question about this sentence: “The pool of water is deceptively shallow.” Is the pool shallow or deep? It seems to me as if it could be either.

A: The word “deceptively” means “in a deceptive manner, so as to deceive,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And as it turns out, it’s a very deceptive adverb when used to modify an adjective.

Some people feel, for instance, that a man described as “deceptively tall” is actually shorter than he seems. Others think just the opposite – that he’s taller than he seems.

This makes “deceptively” an unreliable word. Is the man tall in appearance but actually short, or short in appearance but actually tall?

The OED says the adverb was first used in print by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his book Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character  (1825):

“If he use the words, Right and Obligation, he does it deceptively, and means only Compulsion, and Power.” (We’ve expanded the quotation somewhat by going to the original.)

Coleridge’s meaning is clear enough. But here’s the only other OED citation for “deceptively,” from Henry W. Bates’s The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of Adventures (1863):

“Two smaller kinds, which are deceptively like the little Nemeobius Lucina.” 

Bates was talking about two Amazon butterflies that were “deceptively like” an English species. But what did he mean?

If two butterflies are “deceptively like” a third, does that mean they’re more or less like it than they seem? Bates probably meant they were so alike as to deceive an onlooker.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting usage note about “deceptively”:

“When deceptively is used to modify an adjective, the meaning is often unclear. Does the sentence The pool is deceptively shallow mean that the pool is shallower or deeper than it appears?”

When American Heritage’s Usage Panel was asked to decide, “50 percent thought the pool shallower than it appears, 32 percent thought it deeper than it appears, and 18 percent said it was impossible to judge.”

“Thus a warning notice worded in such a way would be misinterpreted by many of the people who read it, and others would be uncertain as to which sense was intended,” the dictionary adds.

So what should a writer do when faced with this deceptive adverb?

“Where the context does not make the meaning of deceptively clear,” the AH usage note says, “the sentence should be rewritten, as in The pool is shallower than it looks or The pool is shallow, despite its appearance.”

Our advice? Unless you intend to be deceptive, it’s best to avoid “deceptively” before an adjective.

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